15 October 2020
Hopefully no unforgivable spoilers, but this review does involve plot summary.
Charlee LeBeau & the Gambler’s Promise promises to be one of a trilogy; Charlee LeBeau & the Salish Wind is due out February 2021. I can’t wait! Those of you who follow my blog will remember my rants about both series fiction and cliff-hangers. Charlee LeBeau, although the first in a yet-incomplete trilogy, still satisfies. C.V. Gauthier manages to leave the narrative in a place where her readers are both reassured and yet anxious to read on. This is a difficult balance to achieve.
Charlotte—Charlee—LeBeau is the daughter of a Métis ranch foreman in Sonoma, California, in the mid 1850s. Highly intelligent, she tutors the ranch-owner’s son—her best friend, Jake Miller—in mathematics. His interest lies more with governmental history and policy (which I am guessing will become significant later in the trilogy). Charlee’s affinity for numbers, on the other hand, is a life skill she draws on throughout this first novel.
Life on the ranch is complicated: both wonderful and fraught for a fourteen-year-old girl. While friends with Jake, as her father is with his, she is taunted by his younger step-sister, Bernadette, and denigrated by his step-mother. Her father and her surrogate mother, the African-American cook, Miss Molly, help to guide the headstrong, mercurial Charlee as she begins to experience the injustices of society: the injustice preventing her father from an open relationship with Miss Molly, the injustice of the power The Missus wields, the injustice of young Bernadette’s jealous taunts and lies. The situation between Charlee and the female Millers grows progressively worse, and when Charlee’s father is killed in an accident—trying to save Bernadette from being trampled—Charlee is left with little choice. No longer welcome on the ranch, bitter and angry at having her father taken from her, Charlee feels abandoned by all except Miss Molly. With few other options, despite misgivings, Charlee chooses to move to San Francisco with father’s brother, Uncle Jack, who promises her an education.
“Papa had no use for Uncle Jack. Going with him would mean leaving everything I’d ever known. … I fought to balance myself between opposite forces. Staying and leaving. Work and school. Grief and joy.” (122)
With the promise of an education, the knowledge of some personal funds from the sale of her father’s estate, and a generous gift from Mr. Miller, Charlee’s future does not seem all that bleak.
“Don’t like this one bit,” Miss Molly tells her, though, as she prepares to leave, “you going to the city with Mr. LeBeau. Don’t care he’s Luke’s kin. … I got a bad feeling, you going to San Francisco with him. I don’t like him one bit.” (142-43)
“That part made me nervous,” Charlee admits. “Miss Molly was usually right when she had one of her feelings.” (143)
At least we were warned.
The hardship of Charlee’s life in the city is thus, although harrowing, not unexpected. Here I think is where Gauthier’s sensibilities and writing ability really come to light. We are given a troubling yet honest glimpse into the dangerous, illicit world of the San Francisco docks in the 1850s, and the struggles Charlee has with a drunken gambler for an uncle; with hiding her gender, working as a stable-boy to feed herself when her uncle won’t; with the simple act of walking safely from their hovel of a room to the stables and back every day. The life of the docks was truly multicultural, and in the 1850s that meant prejudice and discrimination leading to conflict and abuse. The book’s strength is founded on more than just good research, though: Gauthier’s description is highly evocative, her narrative solid and convincing. The hierarchy of class and culture and race, the little details of characterization, give a richness to the narrative that makes the reader really feel the atmosphere of Charlee’s world. And her isolation. Despite that some people she encounters do help her—mostly the disenfranchised, like herself: the African Americans, the Chinese, other immigrants—Charlee has no one she can trust. Her final interaction with Tubby, the stable owner, shows how really alone she is. Despite her help with his accounts, and preventing him from signing a exploitative lease, she—and thus the reader—is honestly uncertain of her position when he comments that her uncle “forgot his niece when he blew town” (250). I’m not expressing well the power of that moment, when we think that Charlee has found a safe space, and her confidence is ripped away with her disguise. At her parting, Miss Molly had told Charlee: “You have trouble with Mr. LeBeau, you find Amos [her brother] straight away. Promise me you will” (143). In the end, finding Amos, Charlee’s only viable option, turns out to be not only complicated but dangerous. Seeking help from Jake, who she had located but been too proud to approach, she prepares to meet with Amos and beg to head north with him on the Salish Wind.
There is, of course, much more going on, much more that Charlee learns, including how to cheat at gambling, the use of gunpowder in fireworks, and the law governing mining shares in British Columbia. As she moves towards an uncertain future, we are confident that she has learned well, and will do well. The self-confidence developed through the hardships she has survived alone is complemented by the realization that her pride has made her more alone than she needed to be.
“Blame had never gotten me anywhere but into spirals of anger and frustration. No wonder Papa had wanted me to learn forgiveness. I finally understood why. I wasn’t quite ready for it, not totally. But I could see the top of its sail on my horizon.” (295)
I look greatly forward to seeing where the Salish Wind will take her.