Author: Karen Kondazian
Publisher: Hansen Publishing Group
If you happen to visit the Pioneer Odd Fellows Cemetery in Watsonville, California, you may come across the grave of Charley Darkey Parkhurst (1812-1879) with the following curious inscription on the tombstone:
Charley Darkey Parkhurst (1812-1879) Noted whip of the gold rush days drove stage over Mt. Madonna in early days of Valley. Last run San Juan to Santa Cruz. Death in cabin near the 7 mile house. Revealed 'one eyed Charlie' a woman. First woman to vote in the U.S. November 3, 1868
No doubt, you are now asking what is this all about? And most likely Karen Kondazian, before writing her debut novel The Whip, likewise posed the same question when she began her research in re-creating the life and times of this unusual stagecoach driver, or whip, as they were called, who masqueraded as a man in California for several decades.
Inspired by a true story, the narrative rivets you with such profound twists and turns that it hardly lets up over the course of its 292 pages. Kondazian has certainly done her homework, as evidenced by her ability to unveil the audacious character of Charley as depicted through the various phases and episodes of her life. In addition, she has so effectively captured this gritty era of guns, whiskey and horses, that by the time you have completed your reading, the realism and emotions will make you believe that it is all true.
The first stage of Charley's life, who initially is known as Charlotte, unfolds when, in March 1812 in Boston, Massachusetts, her mother abandons her as a baby on the steps of the Boston Society for Destitute Children. It is here where she is befriended by a 4-year old boy named Lee Colton who takes on the role of her protector against the beastliness she encounters at the hands of the head mistress of the institution. Lee, however, is not exactly a great role model and is quite a nasty fellow, whom Charlotte never completely trusted. Her instincts ultimately prove justified when Lee rapes her; and it is this tragic experience that will have a significant role in determining the course of her future life.
When the head mistress discovers that Charlotte liked to play with boys, she punished her by having her live in the stables as a stable hand and to tend to one of the most difficult horses. Moreover, the headmistress tells her in front of Jonas, the regular stable boy, that "everything that goes into that horse, and everything that comes out is your responsibility. If he is difficult, if he disobeys" you, not her, are to be punished." Under the tutelage of Jonas, who was like a father to her, Charlotte succeeds in her role as stable hand, as well as learning the tricks of the trade in driving a wagon that one day will have an immense influence on her life.
Charlotte's life embraces a new direction when Jonas dies and she meets and falls in love with Bryon Williams, a black man who is a blacksmith. After their relationship ends in a sad and horrendous event, Charlotte decides to pursue the life of a stagecoach driver in Sacramento, California. However, there is one problem -- she is a woman, and it is inconceivable that women would be permitted entry into this occupation. Nonetheless, this doesn't deter a feisty Charlotte who decides to disguise herself as a man, never to reveal to anyone her true gender. In fact, you can say that she becomes an actor forced to live a life of cruel deception, yet at the same time, becoming one of the most renowned stagecoach drivers of her time -- making us all wonder how was she able to pull this off for so many years.
The Whip is a powerful, utterly memorable and auspicious debut authored from someone that I am sure we will be hearing more about in the future. Kondazian's astute understanding of character and dialogue can presumably be attributed to her many years as an award-winning theater actress and her more than 50 television shows and films. And if you find yourself reading this novel believing that you can easily predict what will happen next, watch out -- you are in for a big surprise!