History is almost always better than fiction. And historic fiction, when done with respect for the actual history, is one of my favorite genres. Actually, it’s very difficult for me to pick a favorite genre, but for your sake, dear reader, I’ll keep it on point here.
I recently discovered this precious little book – And Five Were Hanged. It appears to have been compiled from oral histories as well as typical historical research via dissertations, and publications. Fragmented tidbits of historical reminiscences are scattered throughout. On Page seven I read:
When they weren’t busy mining, the Chinese men loved to gamble. Not all of their stakes involved money. The story is told of a Chinaman who owned a gambling place where his Chinese wife, China Jenny, dealt the cards. She had the reputation of dealing them quicker than an eye could see. One day as the Chinaman gambled with a white man named Joe, bad luck seemed to follow the oriental and he soon lost all his money. With nothing left for stakes, he became quite desperate and, seeing his wife sitting cross-legged on a table, decided to put her up as stakes. He couldn’t bear to part with her so bet only half interest in his wife. But alas, luck was not with him and he again lost. Old-timers remember that China Jenny lived one week with her husband and the next week with Joe. (p. 7-8)
As I read that, several things struck me. The book was written in 1968, right at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, and much of the labeling reflects that. The author refers to people as “Chinaman,” “Mullato,” “Indians,” and “Orientals.” Interestingly, these labels are even used when the subject is revered, or a prominent member of society. And, of course, among other things, the most glaring is the fact that women were treated as property, even talented and well-thought-of women. This story stayed with me for weeks. China Jenny was named, as was the presumably Caucasian Joe. Jenny’s husband was not. This was the only justice to this story for me. Here follows my attempt at historic fiction. Please let me know what you think.
China Jenny Wins the Pot
“Maybe I deal cawds in yo fava,” said China Jenny as Joe kicked off his boots. “You no be so shu-wah.”
“Ahm sure o’ one thang – yer half with mey an it works good. Nah I dunna hevta steal you away when I need it.”
“You big haawt – so kine,” and anger dripped from her words as she pulled her skirt back on and turned her back on him. Joe grabbed her arm, his thumb digging into her bicep as he spun her around to face his wrath. But this time Jenny used the force of his motion to bring her other arm around full force and planted her palm squarely on the side of his head. As the contact sent a sharp cracking sound resounding in the one room shack he lived in, his face responded accordingly, twisting sideways with spittle flying in an arch through the air as he released her arm and tried and catch his balance.
Time slowed from the shock at this turn of events. And suddenly Jenny turned her back on him again, grabbed her furs, and stormed outside. She somehow wasn’t afraid of his brutality this time. This time she was confused at her anger over this cruel man not loving her like she loved him. She didn’t understand how she could love such a man, but she could see that her violence toward him was a new thing – spawning not from self-defense or latent fury at his past treatment of her. She realized that striking him had come from a place inside her heart, a strange and harmful place that wanted him to possess her fully without forcing her to be taken. She wanted him to wish he’d won her for all time, and not have to share her with another man. And it was this realization that frightened her and made her begin to loathe him less and herself more. Her heart sank when he didn’t demand that her husband bet her all-in against the pot. She lived in a time and place where no one questioned betting the use of her body every other week and she didn’t think to resent that fact. Instead, she resented that this man, with whom she had been with many times before willingly and sometimes unwillingly, didn’t want her fully.
In the seconds it took for her to leave, Joe realized that he could have forced her to stay. He could have taken her as he’d done several times before, with her arms and legs flailing and her face turning puffy from his blows before she finally was subdued to his power over her. As he turned to follow her out, her words sank into his skull, and he understood her. It was the first time he had actually heard her, and he felt like he had lost something. If he had ever truly reigned in some small way in this relentless hellhole of a town on the edge of a biting wilderness, the tables had turned. She now ruled him.
He didn’t understand and wasn’t the type to analyze it further. But Joe had not actually meant to overpower her those times. He’d wanted someone to love him like he’d never been loved before. He’d been raised by two farmers who cared only for how strong he grew and whether he’d done his chores and the crop was coming along. Their treatment of him had been civil when the weather was good, but it wasn’t only the crops that suffered from the occasional drought. With her words and the force of her hand to drive the point home, his position toward her had changed.
He threw some wood into the stove and put some water on for coffee. The emptiness inside him was all too familiar. It wasn’t the all-too-common hunger pains they all suffered in that region. It was something else. The new immigration law and townsfolk’s predisposition made it clear that he could never keep her past the every other week wager he’d won. Still, he found himself longing for her to come back, to touch the redness on his face, and kiss it.