Book review: Aaron Leitko reviews "The Poker Bride," by Christopher Corbett

Sunday, April 18, 2010; B07


The First Chinese in the Wild West

By Christopher Corbett

Atlantic Monthly. 218 pp. $24

During the 1849 California Gold Rush, thousands of Chinese workers made the voyage across the Pacific Ocean to the Western United States hoping to strike it rich. Whether or not they succeeded, many eventually opted to return home. Even those who perished were frequently exhumed from their graves and repatriated by fellow countrymen. Polly Bemis, on the other hand, was in it for the long haul.

In his exhaustively researched "The Poker Bride," Christopher Corbett tells how Bemis -- a Chinese woman who probably arrived in the United States as a concubine -- wound up living on a remote patch of Idaho wilderness for more than 50 years with a Connecticut-born gambler who had won her in a poker game. By the time she finally descended from the mountains in 1923, she had become a relic of a different era, a kind of modern Rip Van Winkle.

"When Polly Bemis arrived in Grangeville [Idaho] the summer after her husband had died, she was a celebrated curiosity, a living reminder of the Gold Rush that was fast becoming legend in the Pacific Northwest," Corbett writes. "She had gone up into the mountains . . . a mere seven years after the American Civil War was over, when the Indian wars were still raging and there was still an emperor on the throne in Peking."

Corbett uses Bemis's story as a platform for a larger discussion about the hardships of the Chinese experience in the American West -- including abhorrent living conditions, systematic persecution and sexual slavery. Bemis's long trek -- from rural China to San Francisco to the Salmon River -- wasn't a picnic, but its ending, no matter how curious, was happier than many.

-- Aaron Leitko


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