I’m delighted to welcome Liz Harris as my guest today.
Liz, tell me all about the history that inspired your new book, The Lost Girl.
The Lost Girl is the third historical novel I’ve set in Wyoming Territory, which is what I should call Wyoming as it didn’t become the 44th State of the Union until 1890, and my novels are set prior to that date.
I am clearly drawn to Wyoming, but not because of its beauty. It isn’t a beautiful State, although it has areas of great beauty within it, the most famous being Yellowstone Park. I’m drawn to it because of its fascinating history, and each of the novels I’ve set in Wyoming is a love story that brings to life a different part of Wyoming’s history.
A Bargain Struck was set in 1887 because I wanted to show one of the most important consequences of the worst winter in Wyoming history, the winter of 1886-1887. My novella, A Western Heart, was set in 1880, just after the invention of the first ventilated rail car, which made it possible for dressed beef to be shipped back east, something which had implications for ranchers and railroad owners alike. My latest novel, The Lost Girl, is set in the 1870s and 1880s, a period in which Chinese immigrants in the US were appallingly treated, with nowhere worse than in Wyoming.
Yet Wyoming is known as The Equality State, and with good reason.
In 1869, Governor John Campbell extended the right to vote to women, making Wyoming Territory the first in the US to give the vote to women. It was also the home of many other firsts in the US for women: in 1870, Esther Hobart Morris became the first female justice of the peace, and in the same year, women jurors were first allowed and a female court bailiff was appointed. In 1924, Wyoming was the first US State to elect a female governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross.
But some people were more equal than others, and the Chinese who settled in the US were treated as very far from equal.
From 1854, Chinese girls had been shipped into San Francisco expressly to work as prostitutes. Frequently, they’d been kidnapped from villages, purchased from impoverished parents, captured by pirates or given false promises of marriage. Once in America, they were contracted to individual Chinese or sold to a brothel. Girls with bad luck attached to them, would spend their short lives in small rooms called ‘cribs’, with only a bed and a barred window. Few made their way as far as Wyoming. Those who did were generally lone prostitutes in small mining camps.
While the discovery of gold at South Pass, Wyoming, in 1867 encouraged many to come to western Wyoming, it was the building of America’s first transcontinental railroad, which had started a few years before, that brought most immigrants there.
In 1863, Central Pacific began working towards the east on the railroad from Sacramento, California, employing Irish immigrants, Mexican labourers and Civil War veterans to build the track. After two years, when progress had been so slow that they’d laid only fifty miles of track, one of the four owners, Crocker, decided that it would be cheaper to bring in Chinese workers from Canton by boat than recruit labourers west of the Mississippi, and on an experimental basis, the company brought in fifty Chinese labourers, experienced in drills and explosives, to level roadbeds, bore tunnels and blast mountainsides.
Employing them was so successful that six months later, there were almost three thousand Chinese immigrants working on the railroads.
The railroad was finished in 1868. Trains run on coal, however, and Union Pacific realised that the blasting skills of the Chinese could be used in the mining of that coal, and when the white miners went on strike in Rock Springs in 1875 in protest at Union Pacific lowering the price they were paid for the coal they’d dug, the company sent in Chinese miners to break the strike.
The whites had to go back to work or lose their jobs and so, full of anger and hate, they returned to the mines where they were forced to work alongside the Chinese, who stayed on after the strike and settled into the town and with them their barbers, their food stores, their laundries …
Tension between the Chinese and the white miners was inevitable, and the law colluded well into the twentieth century with the oppression of the Chinese in towns across California and the American West. Despite the tremendous contribution made by the Chinese to the development of the US, they were not to be accorded the equality enjoyed by Wyoming women until well into the twentieth century. This was my inspiration for The Lost Girl.
Many thanks for inviting me to guest on your blog today, Charlotte. I’ve very much enjoyed talking to you about Wyoming, a State whose history has been a great source of inspiration.
THE LOST GIRL
What if you were trapped between two cultures?
Life is tough in 1870s Wyoming. But it’s tougher still when you’re a girl who looks Chinese but speaks like an American.
Orphaned as a baby and taken in by an American family, Charity Walker knows this only too well. The mounting tensions between the new Chinese immigrants and the locals in the mining town of Carter see her shunned by both communities.
When Charity’s one friend, Joe, leaves town, she finds herself isolated. However, in his absence, a new friendship with the only other Chinese girl in Carter makes her feel as if she finally belongs somewhere.
But for a girl like Charity, finding a place to call home was never going to be easy.
THE LOST GIRL is published by Choc Lit and currently available for your Kindle.