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:
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.