The Brine-Fly-Larvae-Eaters

What’s YOUR main source of protein? Burgers? Pork chops? Tofu? Peanut butter? Beans and rice? All of those are easy to find in 21st Century America. We don’t even have to prepare them ourselves if we don’t want to.

21st Century meals on the road

But for the Paiute Indians of the Great Basin, finding food to sustain life was such a constant struggle that each Paiute band was named after the main source of food available in its immediate geographical region. These bands included Fish-Eaters, Grass-Nut Eaters, Cattail-Eaters, Ground-Squirrel-Eaters, Jackrabbit-Eaters, etc. The Mono Lake band were the Kutzedika’a, “Brine-Fly-Larvae-Eaters.”

Brine-flies live at the edge of Mono Lake, a unique body of water east of Yosemite near the California-Nevada border, with a biology, geology and history all its own. The lake is surrounded with bizarre rocky towers formed of calcium-carbonate limestone. Its water is alkaline and undrinkable; no fish can live in it. The Kutzedika’a people who lived around it drank from fresh-water creeks flowing into the lake from the Sierras. And they ate the foods that they could harvest around the lake, such as kutsavi, the larvae of the brine-flies, pine-nuts from the stunted piñons that grew on the nearby slopes, and piaghi, the fat, juicy caterpillar of the Pandora moth they harvested every other year from the stands of Jeffrey pines south of the lake.

Mono Lake brine-fly larvae

Kutzedika'a foodstuff: brine-fly larvae

Here’s a picture of a handful of brine-fly larvae. They don’t look very appetizing to us, but to the Kutzedika’a they were the difference between life and death by starvation. What do they taste like? I’ve never tried them myself, but one 19th Century white traveler called them salty like sardines, while they reminded a 20th Century visitor of wheat germ. They must have been tasty as well as nutritious, since every year the Kutzedika’a traded them for acorns and other foodstuffs harvested by Indians from other regions.

In The Second Promise, an old Kutzedika’a woman and her granddaughter, Una, have taken Cali under their protection. Cali and Una were making bead projects, but one day, there’s something more important than beading.

The old woman made Cali and Una put away their beadwork and go with the younger women to the lake, each carrying a winnowing basket shaped like a giant, slightly curved tear-drop. Knee-deep in water, they scooped up load after load of the wiggling larvae of the brine fly which rimmed the bank in a thick dark layer. Swarms of flies rose in front of them in a soft, buzzing mass. Una joined them, but Cali stood back from the shore and watched the water fall through the loose weave of the baskets in a dribbling cascade, splashing the women’s skirts and scattering sunlight. Then the women dumped the larvae out of their baskets and spread them out on the sand, still wriggling, to dry before wading in again to scoop up more. Back at camp, the women rubbed off their shells. The old woman pointed to the larvae as she rubbed. Kutsavi, she said, and grinned her gap-toothed grin.

Here’s a winnowing basket like the ones the Kutzadika’a women used:

Mono Lake-style antique winnowing basket

Mono Lake, shown in the pictures by my husband Paul Abernathy, is a beautiful, fascinating place.

Mono Lake looking west toward the Sierras

Mono Lake at sunset

Despite its undrinkable water, Mono Lake is a stopping place for hundreds of thousands of birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway.

Tufa towers in Mono Lake

And plenty of unusual small creatures live in the lake. Only recently, in a NASA-funded study, biologists were amazed to discover that some bacteria at the bottom of lake are able to exist and reproduce using arsenic instead of phosphorus. Since arsenic usually poisons living creatures, these unique bacteria are actually being called “a new life form”.  Here’s a picture of Felicia Wolfe-Simon, the astrobiologist who made this astounding discovery.

Photo courtesy of

Felicia Wolfe-Simon, astrobiologist, at Mono Lake

The Kutzedika’a people did not know about arsenic-tolerant bacteria, but they knew all about brine flies. If you visit Mono Lake, you’ll be aware of them too. They are like a thick, black, moving carpet of insects ringing the shoreline. As you approach, they rise up from the water and the shore, buzzing in annoyance, and you think they are about to land on you, but they don’t. You walk through, and the carpet of flies does not touch you. It just rises and buzzes to make room for your feet, and then settles back down again. This huge mass of insects lays huge numbers of eggs, which develop into larvae during the late summer. The larvae form their own floating carpet around the edge of the lake.

Cali couldn’t bear to look at the wriggling larvae drying on the hard sand at the edge of the lake, but when she got hungry enough, she ate them anyway, toasted over a fire or mashed into a paste. Next time you see a can of sardines or a jar of wheat germ, think about what it would take to survive if you were one of the Kutzedika’a people back in the 19th Century. And think about how much harder it would be after the 1860’s, when white settlers began cutting down most of the piñons and Jeffrey pines to fuel their towns and mines.

Nowadays, many middle-class Americans try to be locavores, choosing foods grown close to home. The Kutzedika’a and other Native peoples had very few choices about what to eat, but I like to think of them as the original American locavores.

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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, the main architect of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, maintained a long relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, a mixed-race woman. Some of their children identified as white, some as black. Professor Annette Gordon-Reed explains why:

Frederick Douglass, American pathfinder

Half a century later, Frederick Douglass, a mixed-race former slave, became a leading abolitionist. His writings and speeches helped set the stage for the abolition of slavery in the United States.

In 1883 Cali Leung, the mixed-race protagonist of The Second Promise, knew the perils of racial identification and discrimination all too well. After her Chinese Godmother Xiao-Ying died, Xiao-Ying’s friend Nellie Young offered to adopt Cali.

“You can’t,” Cali said, still staring down. “I’m Chinese and you’re white.”

 Nellie narrowed her eyes. “Well, you’re half white, and ever since we came to Bodie, you’ve been going to school as a Young. Nobody has stopped you yet, because you look just as white as Will and Martin. I don’t see why you can’t just continue being white. If you were really part of our family, it would be even easier than before.”

Cali was already shaking her head. No it wouldn’t, she thought. It’s not easy for me to keep pretending. I have to pretend to be a Young when I’m really a Leung.  I have to pretend not to mind when people say hateful things about the Chinese, calling them filthy and criminal and dishonest. I have to pretend not to notice the signs on Main Street businesses promising that they only hire white men to cook there or repair shoes there. And pretend not to notice the disapproving look on Mr. Young’s face that time he asked Mrs. Nellie why she doesn’t belong to the Ladies’ Auxiliary and she explained that her friend Mrs. Lee Xiao-Ying is a real lady, while the Ladies’ Auxiliary is full of counterfeit ladies. What it felt like to hear the chants coming from the political meetings at the Miners’ Hall. “The Chinese Must Go!” the men shouted, louder and louder, and Gohn-Pa would lock the door and douse the kerosene lantern, so the house would be dark when the men spilled out of the meeting and looked for some Chinese to beat up. 

The Second Promise, Chapter 1.

my son David, Oakland entrepreneur

Thankfully, some things have changed since 1883. David, my youngest son, was born a century later. He and his bi-racial cronies call themselves “mixties”. That’s a cute name; there have been many harsh ones. Mongrel. Half-breed. Mulatto. Mestizo. Mud people. Even today, some people of all races deplore what they see as dilution of racial purity. (Racial purity is, of course, a myth, as proved by Henry Louis Gates in his famous study of the DNA of Oprah and other celebrities.) Traditionally, “mixties”  were assumed to be mixed up psychologically as well as racially, unable to fit in to either society. Today, at least in the Bay Area, race seems to have faded as a primary source of identity for bi-racial people.  It’s been fascinating to watch my three children grow up, each with a different point of view, all points of view differing from those of their father and me.

my son Diallo, thinker, teacher, dancer

So who are the mixties? Obviously, people whose birth parents have different racial identities. What about people raised in multi-racial families?  And what about a minority race child growing up in a family which identifies with the dominant culture, such as Jenny Lee in Lian Gouw’s novel, Only A Girl. Jenny and her family were ethnic Chinese living in Indonesia, then a colony of the Netherlands. Jenny’s primary language was Dutch, and her family adopted many Dutch social and educational conventions. When the Dutch colonial era ended, the social rules radically shifted, and Jenny felt lost. Was she Dutch? Chinese? Or Indonesian? Is Jenny Lee a mixtie?

my daughter Maya, Oakland Raiders fan whose feelings run deep

In today’s America, all children have to learn the rules of racial behavior. It’s just a little more complicated for mixties. If their black friends call each other “Nigga” in a friendly way, can a black-white mixtie do the same? Where some school friends are ABC’s (American Born Chinese) who make fun of FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) immigrant classmates, should the Chinese-Caucasian mixtie chime in? What if you’re half Filipino and half black, and your black friends ridicule you for chatting in Tagalog with your Filipino classmates?

Soledad O'Brien, award-winning CNN journalist

I believe that racial identity is really cultural identity, and it seems to me that more and more often, bi-racial young people are defining their own culture. I see them no longer basing their identity on the traditional markers of skin color and ethnic origin, but instead, cherry-picking their cultural preferences from their broader experience.

Tiger Woods, golfer

Despite the code of silence that still prevails in most of white American culture, everyone is assumed to have an opinion about race. And I think that some of the most informed, thoughtful and nuanced opinions are held by Americans of mixed race.

(Check out Barack Obama’s famous speech about race at

If you’re a “mixtie”, either because your parents are of different races or you’re part of a multi-racial family, I’d love to hear your point of view. Please comment and share your experiences about the effect and importance of race in your own family. How are you received and treated by the different cultures in your family? In your school or workplace?

Maggie Q, model and actress

Meanwhile, take a moment to appreciate the talents and beauty of some famous mixed-race American women.

Etta James, singer

Halle Berry, actress

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STAGECOACH ROBBERY — “Halt! Your money or your life!”

1880's poster advertising daily stage service to Aurora and Bodie

The stage stopped in front of the stone toll-house at Sunshine Station. No need to change horses yet. Nate greeted old Mr. Blanchard, bearded and almost toothless as he smiled and joked and collected the toll.

     “Any word ‘bout the road agents who held up the stage last week?” Nate asked.

     Mr. Blanchard shook his head. “Nary a sign of ‘em,” he said.

     “Probably moved on,” said Nate. “I heard there was another robbery yesterday down by Hawthorne. Could’a been the same bandits.”  

The Second Promise, Chapter 4.

Nate Young, the stagecoach driver, or “Jehu”, is a fictional character, but Hank Blanchard was real. In the 1880’s and 1890’s he owned and operated the toll road which ran from Bodie to the Nevada state line. Mr. Blanchard collected tolls at Half Way House (about half way between Bodie and Aurora), also known as Sunshine Station.

Ruins of Sunshine Station, near the Nevada state line on the Bodie Road

Mr. Blanchard is long gone, of course, but the dirt road’s still there, and so are the ruins of a stone house, said to be Sunshine Station. The road follows Bodie Creek, and close to Bodie, the remains of long-abandoned mines can still be seen on the harsh gray gravel hillsides.

Old mine workings on the Bodie-Aurora Road

Even though the Bodie road heads more or less easterly to Aurora, it was the fastest way to reach San Francisco. You’d travel by stagecoach to Aurora, another stagecoach to Carson City, board the Virginia and Truckee Rail Road, and meet the transcontinental Central Pacific train at Reno. During Bodie’s heyday, two or three stagecoaches left in each direction every day.

Stagecoach robberies were common, especially when the stock market crashed and men were laid off.  On the Bodie Road past Sunshine station, the road curves through Bodie Canyon, flanked on both sides by steep red-rock cliffs. In fact, old-timers reported that robberies were so frequent that the stage horses would stop of their own accord when they reached Bodie Canyon, waiting for a holdup to take place!

Bodie Stage, probably at Bodie Canyon

Most stagecoach holdups did not result in injury to the driver or passenger. The bandit was interested in a quick, easily-carried haul, so he could disappear before any other travelers appeared. He was armed and usually masked with a bandana; once the passengers were out of the coach, he’d order them to deposit all their money, watches, and jewelry into his hat. Unless the coach carried a “treasure box”, there was no armed guard.

Two stages near Yosemite, courtesy William B. Secrest

Here are a couple of stories from William B. Secrest’s fascinating book, The Great Yosemite Hold-Ups (Saga-West Pub. Co, Fresno, 1968.) Secrest mined the newspapers of the time, which relished (and perhaps embellished) the details of stagecoach robberies and the posses who pursued the bandits.

How “The Black Kid” robbed five vehicles and two United States cavalrymen.

In May, 1900, driver A.H. Foster pulled his stagecoach out of Raymond, south of Mariposa, California, taking a party of stone-cutters up to the big trees in Yosemite.  At a sandy stretch of road, a lone man with a shotgun stepped out from behind a tree and told Foster to pull the coach out of sight. The outlaw had blackened his face with soot or charcoal under his mask, and tried to disguise his voice.

The quarrymen were lined up and asked to put their valuables in the outlaw’s hat. The reporter commented: “Adhering to a time-honored custom, the driver of the stage was not robbed.”  Foster sat on his perch. The robber said they had to wait for other stages. Foster suggested a drink while they waited, so they all drank some beer. It got hot on the stage, so Foster asked if he could sit under a tree. The robber granted permission and gave Foster his card, “in case we ever meet again.” His name, in crude printing: “The Black Kid”.

A freight wagon and wood team arrived, and this time the drivers were robbed and directed to stand in line with the quarrymen. (I guess time-honored custom didn’t apply where there were no other passengers to rob).  

Next: two soldiers riding ahead of a troop of cavalry on the way to Yosemite. The bandit waved his shotgun, and they dismounted and dropped their weapons.

Next: a stage full of tourists, driven by Bright Gillespie. The bandit, cool and polite,  passed the hat, which quickly filled with money. He declined to take a watch or a woman’s purse, and allowed the passengers to keep some money for themselves. They stood around joking about their situation.

Next: another stage, driven by Ernest Stevens, with 15 or 16 Chinese passengers. They didn’t speak English, but the shotgun needed no translator. The bandit collected $225 from them. He tried and failed to open the Wells Fargo box. (I don’t know why there was no armed guard on this stage.)

Apparently satisfied with the robbery of five vehicles, “The Black Kid” finally allowed everyone to go, but he put the soldiers in a stage and two passengers on their horses. Foster’s stage headed out, and the soldiers’ horses bolted back down the road to their  troop of 6th United States cavalry, only 300 yards from the hold-up site.

Major Percher was in charge of the cavalry troop. When  he finally realized what was happening, he galloped forward to the site of the robberies. The bandit was gone, the soldiers were gone, confusion reigned, and in the end, the cavalry scrambled to chase the bandit. They found his camp, but never found him.

Hold-up Photographed by Austrian Consul.

Anton Veith, the Austrian consul with a camera

On August, 15, 1905, Anton Veith was Austrian consul and the editor of an agricultural newspaper, on his way to Yosemite from Raymond in an open tourist coach. Veith carried a camera, protected from dust. Fellow passengers included two blacksmiths, an Austrian companion, and women, uncomfortable in linen dusters.

Tourist stage leaving Raymond on the way to Yosemite. Photo by Anton Veith.

Veith was awakened from a doze by the command, “Get down!” by a masked figure in a battered felt hat and ragged duster, carrying both a rifle and a pistol. The bandit made the men get off, robbed the pockets of the two Austrians, and turned to the stage and the women. In an apparent show of class solidarity, he did not rob the driver or the two blacksmiths.

Veith politely asked whether he could photograph the robber with the stage,  permission was granted, and Veith was allowed to retrieve his camera from the stage. The outlaw posed, the picture was taken, the men got back into the stage, and the robber waved as the stage went on its way. Although there are several “posed” photos of stagecoach holdups, this is the only known photo of the real thing.

Anton Veith's photo of the hold-up of his tourist stage to Yosemite, August, 1905. The robber is in the background, wearing a white duster

After awhile Farnsworth, the driver, turned the stage around and went back to Raymond to report the robbery. Interviewed later, Anton Veith said the robber was a gentleman. He had even left Veith’s rosary on the road for him, hanging on a bush.

Today, the Bodie-Aurora road is a rocky dirt track, often interrupted by fallen boulders and deep puddles. The header picture, by Paul Abernathy, shows a cabin in Bodie today. The road to Aurora is at the far bottom right.

These days, well-off adventure travelers choose to explore exotic wild places, often in third world countries. Those vacations, less comfortable and predictable than a bus tour or a cruise, are still carefully organized and seldom dangerous. But in 1883, stagecoach driver Nate Young and his passengers, who were just trying to get to the train, were at real risk for robbery on the Bodie-Aurora Road.

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Chinese children were not allowed at the Bodie School, so Nellie had proposed to enroll Cali as her “niece”. Cali looked American enough. Tall for her age, her rounded nose was sunburned, her hair was chestnut-brown and her blue eyes tilted up only a little at the corners. But when Nellie explained she would have to play quiet games with the other girls and wear a dress every day, Cali had folded her arms and sulked, and Xiao-Ying had put her foot down.

 “Better she dress like a boy,” Xiao-Ying said. “American girl too . . . “ She searched for the English words. “Same as Chinese girl, must take small steps. Too many things girl cannot do.”

Chapter 1, The Second Promise.

 The fictional women Lee Xiao-Ying and Nellie Young were ahead of their time. A white woman, the respectable wife of a mining engineer living in Bodie, California in 1883, would probably not have presented herself as the “aunt” of a mixed-race tomboy like Cali. She would probably not have publicly admitted that a Chinese woman was her friend. Friendship between the races would have violated the rules of the time. When it occurred, it would have been unspoken, disguised as the relationship of an employer and her employee.

And no woman, American or Chinese, would have encouraged a girl-child to dress as a boy. Yet in The Second Promise, Xiao-Ying insists on it, and Nellie agrees to enroll Cali in the Bodie School as her “nephew” Cal Young. When the teacher discovers the deception, she reacts with the typical attitudes of the time:

Bodie School today

“This is unacceptable, Mrs. Young,” Miss Blanche had said, lining up her spectacles with the edge of the blotter on her desk. “It’s immoral. It’s disruptive to the correct order of school. How are the children to learn proper behavior when one of the girls is pretending to be a boy? And furthermore, I have heard – from reliable sources, I might add – that the child actually lives not with you, but with a Chinese family!  Chinese! I can hardly  imagine a more loathsome and unnatural state of affairs. I’m shocked, Mrs. Young, shocked that you would countenance such a fraud. I have no choice. The child must leave school.”

So I had to ask myself — is it authentic to write a story about 19th Century women who disobey the social rules of their time? Is it fair to the readers?

1883 Fashions, Godey's Lady's Book

The women of The Second Promise  could not have lived in Boston or London or Shanghai, where racial separation and gender rules were rigidly enforced. Middle-class and upper-class white women were so tightly corseted and elaborately dressed that it’s no wonder they frequently fainted.

Similarly, middle- and upper-class Chinese women were hobbled by their tiny bound feet, as well as by the requirement to observe the “three obediences”: obedience to father before marriage, the husband after marriage, and the son in case of widows.

Unknown Chinese family in California, courtesy "Women of the West" by Cathy Luchetti & Carol Olwell

Old woman's bound feet

The practice of foot-binding, required among the government and merchant class in China, was immediately abandoned for the girls born in America. Likewise, as soon as the courts overturned the laws excluding Chinese children from public school, most Chinese-American girls attended with their brothers even though their mothers may well have been illiterate. The merchants’ wives may have followed tradition, but their daughters did not.

Girls and boys in Miss Cable's Class, 1882, San Francisco Presbyterian Chinese Mission

The Becker sisters branding cattle on their ranch, 1894. Courtesy of "Women of the West", by Luchetti and Olwell

That’s why The Second Promise takes place in the wild West. Western frontier women had to abandon their old rules just to survive. They chopped wood, mended fence, drove the team, and then they chopped some more wood so they and their families wouldn’t freeze to death. Their clothing was simple, their bodies uncorseted.

Scaravino family at The Goat Ranch by the Bridgeport-Bodie road. Collection of Alice Dolan, courtesy of "Bodie 1859-1900, by Frank S. Wedertz

19th Century women disguising themselves as men were probably more common than we assume. During the Civil War, for example, hundreds of young women enlisted in both armies as “men”. Some were discovered only when they were killed or hospitalized. Here are two of them, Frances Clayton and Sarah Seelye:

Frances Clayton, who served in the Union Army

Sarah Seelye, Civil War soldier until her gender was discovered in a military hospital


Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst was another famous woman disguised as a man. She worked at a stable, then as a stage-driver (Jehu) in the West. In 1868, more than 50 years before women gained the right under the Constitution, Charley was the first woman to vote in the United States (under the name “Charles Parkhurst”). She kept her male identity until her death in 1879.

Charley Parkhurst, stage driver

In The Second Promise, Cali’s Bodie playmates are Nellie Young’s rough-and-tumble sons, and she grows up playing ball, foot-racing, riding horses, throwing a knife. Cali represents the Western women and girls who burst free of their traditional gender roles.

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Basque Shepherds in Yosemite's high country

When he first arrived at the ranch in April, Pello had started out basic, pointing at something and asking “How say ingeles?” It turned out the rancher was busy most of the day, but in the evenings, as he sat on his porch with his glass of whiskey, he seemed to enjoy Pello’s questions. And before the shepherds had left for the mountains, Pello had memorized the correct way to ask, “Please, Sir, how do you say that in English?”

Chapter 15, The Second Promise

So I start to read this book, like a historical romance, right?  Set in like Victorian England or whatever. And the guy is drop-dead gorgeous, with a like interesting past. And the girl’s like in a world of trouble, and I’m all YESSS! This is like totally promising!

Then she starts to talk or think or whatever, and I’m like OH NO YOU DIDN’T! Because she’s like, you know, Alicia Silverstone in “Clueless”. Totally 1995 Valley Girl.  And I’m all PUH-LEEZE! I HATE when that happens!

The Second Promise would include only “authentic” language, or so I thought. But as soon as I began writing, I realized complete authenticity was impossible. For one thing, I wasn’t alive back then to listen to people speak, and there are no movies or records from that era. I had to reach a series of compromises.

It was a constant challenge to insulate the voices of 19th century characters from modern words and expressions. Cali and her friends can’t say “Awesome!” or “Yesss!” to mean “Great!” They can’t even say “great!” to mean “great” as we know it, because back then “great” meant “big”. (Your big toe used to be called your great toe.)  My compromise was to do my best without making the dialogue too stilted. I often found myself checking a word’s etymology to make sure it was actually used in the 1880’s.  (Couldn’t use the word “hillbilly”, which first cropped up in the 1900’s.)

Keeping the dialogue contemporary wasn’t the only problem. The Second Promise  begins in Bodie, the wildest of the Wild West gold rush towns. The language of many of the men would have been incredibly filthy, reflecting the harsh and violent world they tried to master. (If you’re old enough, check out the HBO series “Deadwood”, probably the most accurate film representation of a 19th century Western gold-mining camp.)

"Ho! for Bodie!" Illustration by J. Ross Browne, circa 1863

I’m not comfortable including profane or obscene language in a novel for young people, so my (somewhat weak) compromise was to use harsh, ugly words without obscenity. Here’s an example. Cowboy Perez, who was born in Colombia, is teaching Cali and her friends the proper way to throw a knife when a drunk insults him.

“Hey, greaser!  Keep away from those white kids!” Cali froze when she heard the angry, slurred shout. It was a miner who had emerged unsteadily from a saloon.

Vaqueros breaking a bronc, from a copy of an oil painting by Frederic Remington.

Then there’s the problem of accents. Cowboy Perez speaks English with a Spanish accent. To show this on the page, his speech is sprinkled with a few Spanish words. Here’s what he says to Cali when he gives her his knife:

 “You take it, chica,” he said. “I get another one. Keep it in your boot in case you ever need it. And when you come back to Bodie, you come tell me if you found your papá.”

The Second Promise includes several non-native English speakers, and accents aren’t their only problem.  Like any person learning a new language, they make mistakes. The excerpt at the top of this post is about Pello, a Basque shepherd boy who’s very eager to learn English. When Cali meets him, he’s still a brave beginner:

“I go. Is night. I come morning,” he said carefully. “Morning we speak little bit English, OK?” 

Another challenge: writing in English a conversation spoken in a different language.

Fortune teller writing a letter to China. Photo courtesy of CHSA collection.

Every language has its own rules of grammar; every culture has its own rules of polite speech. As a result, the English translation is never perfect. My compromise was to write naturally, as if the person were speaking English instead of Chinese or Basque or Kutzadika’a  (a Paiute Indian language).  

Kutzedika'a woman and child at their camp by Mono Lake, with John Muir. Photo by C. Hart Merriam, circa 1900. Courtesy, the Bancroft Library.

In this passage, a Kutzadika’a woman and her grown daughter are talking about Cali:

During her sleep, the girl thrashed and cried out in terror. All the while, she clutched a small silk bag in her fist, her fingers tightening on it even as she slept.

“She is chased by a ghost,” Boo-se-ya-nah said.

“What kind of ghost?”  Daughter asked.

“I don’t know. You see she is in mourning, she has cut her hair short. Maybe she did not burn or bury all his things,” Boo-se-ya-nah said.

Daughter nodded. They had both known women haunted by a dead relative if some of his possessions had been overlooked and escaped the fire at his funeral cry dance.

 It’s fun to explore what other writers have done with these issues. Mark Twain’s my hero because he wrote the speech of his everyday characters, even the uneducated ones, at a time when most authors were frozen in an upper-class style of pretentious prose. For more recent tough-guy talk, check out Elmore Leonard. And read Amy Tan and Lisa See, two authors who slide their wonderful characters seamlessly between English and Chinese. Yessss!

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     In Chapter 5 of The Second Promise, Cali Leung overhears a frightening conversation between two white men:

“Did you see them Chinks run? Chased ‘em clear out of the work camp into the bush. Cut off a couple of their queues, too, for souvenirs.” The man chuckled.
“Wish we could’a chased them all the way into the Pacific Ocean,” said the other man. “Damn heathen Chinamen got no business doin’ white men’s jobs.”

     Today, most Americans would condemn those men as racists. But to Cali, a Chinese-American girl in 1883, this kind of talk was all too commonplace. 
     Among the eager gold-seekers who flowed into California from around the world in the 1850’s, some were from China. They arrived, like all the others, intent on making their fortunes. At first they were welcomed by the white residents, praised as hard-working and respectful. But before long, Chinese immigrants were the target of a long and vicious campaign of racial violence and political discrimination by whites. This anti-Chinese fever finally resulted in Congress’ enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only United States law specifically aimed at stopping immigration from a single country.
     Of course, Indians were the first Californians to bear the brunt of American racism. Many tribes had already been decimated, displaced, and disrupted by the Spanish and Mexicans even before the United States captured California. Their destruction continued as Americans poured into the state in their frantic search for gold.
     Black Americans were also subject to discrimination, but in 19th Century California there were not enough of them to represent a threat that politicians could exploit. The Chinese were different. 

Chinese laborers in California, 1880

Boatload after boatload of “coolies” (the whites’ term for working-class Chinese men) arrived at San Francisco wharves ready to work, speaking their own language, eating their own foods, worshipping in their own “joss houses”, looking and behaving differently from all the European immigrants and American emigrants arriving at the same time. Politicians such as John Bigler, Governor from 1852 – 1856, warned Californians to “check this tide of Asiatic immigration.” California passed law after law discriminating against the Chinese, including a law prohibiting a Chinese person from testifying in court unless a white person corroborated that testimony.

Workingmen's Party poster

By the early 1870’s the United States was in a long, deep recession. Many men were unemployed. In San Francisco, Denis Kearney, an Irish immigrant, helped form the “Workingmen’s Party”, focusing its anger on the Chinese, who often worked for lower wages than the whites. Kearney started every speech with the ringing phrase, “The Chinese Must Go!” This phrase was shouted in sand lots and union halls all over California, including Bodie. Even though the Bodie Miners Union only included white men, they tended to blame the Chinese, who kept working their own subsistence jobs even when mines closed and the miners were out of work.

Bodie Miners Union Hall, winter 1881

In The Second Promise, Cali can’t forget the nights her Godfather doused the lamps and locked the doors of their little house in Bodie, as the family huddled together listening to the angry men at the Miners Union Hall. Listening to the shout, repeated over and over: “The Chinese Must Go!”

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Bodie Railway and Lumber Company Locomotive. Photo courtesy of McDonnell sisters.

“When the first train arrived near the mines at the top of the hill, the town held a big celebration, and when the whistle blew a horse had bolted down Main Street with its wagon, scattering children and the men making speeches.”

Chapter 1, The Second Promise.

If you followed what I call the 2010 Texas Chainsaw Massacre of History, you are painfully aware that the “facts” in school history books consist of a series of choices by the people then in power. In Texas in 2010, Republican Christians are powerful. So children will learn less about Thomas Jefferson, an atheist who practically invented American democracy, and more about Ronald Reagan, a Christian Republican who actually believed that rich people’s money would somehow trickle down to the poor.

The historian Howard Zinn flipped the usual approach. In his ground-breaking “A People’s History of the United States”, he challenged us to broaden our view of history, examining not only presidents and captains of industry, but the Americans massacred, marginalized, exploited and run over by the juggernaut of American capitalism and enterprise.

When I decided to write a historical adventure novel, I made my own choices about who’s important. “The Second Promise” is about Cali Leung, a Chinese-American girl who grew up in the mining towns of the wild West. Cali is a fictional character, but some of the people she meets existed in real life. It was fun to write these real people into “The Second Promise”. And it was fun to include real events, too.

For instance, there really was a railroad built to carry lumber up to Bodie and its mines, and there really was a town celebration when the line was completed in 1881.

Horse and wagon on Main Street, Bodie, Ca, 1880. Photo by R.E. Wood

But did the train whistle blow during the ceremony, and did a horse and wagon really bolt down Main Street? Some history books say yes, some don’t mention it. I don’t care if it’s true or not. I love to picture the important men, in the middle of making their grandiose speeches, dashing pell-mell off their make-shift podium to the safety of the boardwalk.

Cali Leung is neither rich nor famous, but I hope readers will enjoy accompanying her on her fictional journey through real 19th Century California to find her father.

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