Sunday, June 6, 2010

With Great Hope Women of the California Gold Rush by JoAnn Chartier and Chris Enss

With Great Hope is one of several books by these authors consisting of brief biographies of women who left their mark on the Old West, some famous others little known or all but forgotten. Despite the brevity of these volumes, they are a fountain of fascinating information that often leave the reader thirsty to know more.

The Gold Rush is the theme of this book, it tells the stories of 12 women who all had one thing in common--they succumbed to the siren's call and decided to go west with great hope of a golden future before them.

In its pages we meet Lotta Crabtree, "The San Francisco Favorite," the Shirley Temple of her day, a dainty red-haired moppet who made a fortune dressed as a leprechaun dancing Irish jigs to entertain lonely and homesick miners, and later made the successful transition to adult roles. But Lotta's life was not entirely a success story, at least not on a personal level, showing us that childstars have always had problems. In Lotta's case it was her mother, a very shrewd woman who managed the money and parlayed the gold nuggets the miners threw at her daughters feet into millions, but she also kept her daughter wholly dependent on her for everything, so that after her death Lotta, who never married or, as far as we know, had a romance, was utterly lost and became a lonely millionaire recluse who left all her substantial fortune to charity when she died. We also meet Lotta's polar opposite, faux Spanish success de scandale, the sultry dark-haired and very temperamental temptress, Lola Montez, known more for her infamous Spider Dance and her love affairs with crowned heads than any genuine talent. Alexander Dumas once said of her "Lola had an evil evil eye that would bring a curse on any man who loved her."

We also make the acquaintance of more humble figures as well, like Nancy Kelsey who crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains barefoot with a baby in her arms because she could not bear to be parted from her husband, and enterprising innkeeper Luzena Stanley Wilson whose home-cooked biscuits were so delicious miners were willing to pay $5 apiece for them. And lady gambler Eleanora Dumont better known as Madame Moustache because of a severe facial hair problem. Lucky at cards but unlucky in love, she ended her days a suicide. There is also the tragic tale of a woman known only as Juanita, a proud Hispanic woman whose last name has been lost to history, who became the first woman to be hanged in California, after she killed a man in self-defense. There is also a chapter on Nellie Pooler Chapman the first female dentist of the Old West.

I always enjoy Ms. Enss' and Ms. Chartier's books, they are a treasure trove for anyone interested in women's history, especially the little known figures who left their mark on history then faded quietly into oblivion, as well as those interested in the Old West, and those who just like a brief, brisk read.


Mari said...

Wow! This sounds really interesting...I am glad you brought this to my attention!

libraqrypat said...

I have two of their books abd they are wonderfully interesting and informative. I'll have to look into this one.