Historical restorer

Christopher Corbett

Former Associated Press reporter Christopher Corbett will be at Sundance Books 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 20, to talk about and sign his new book The Poker Bride, which deals with the Chinese in the old west. The New York Times said that in the book, Corbett “undoes generations of self-serving mythology”—an observation that could also be made about his earlier book Orphans Preferred, on the Pony Express.

We romanticize the Old West. Do you think many people these days in the United States have a sense of how virulent the hatred of the Chinese was back then?

No, I do not. I think that’s also a very good question. I think people today regard it as a very romantic time, and it was anything but. Remember the expression—I use it in it’s historical context—“a Chinaman’s chance”? Well, that’s what the Old West was, a Chinaman’s chance, which was no chance at all. To be Chinese in the West at the time, the years after the [California] gold rush, the last half of the 19th century, was a pretty grim experience for the most part.

In Virginia City, the practice of the Chinese with opium was tolerated. Then it started seeping into the white homes, and then they cracked down on it.

That’s another good example. Because you’re in Nevada, I’ll tell you that one of the great accounts of the Chinese in the West is about Nevada, and it appears in Mark Twain’s Roughing It. Mark Twain was the first significant American writer to be sympathetic to the Chinese. When no one spoke on their behalf, Mark Twain did. And Mark Twain is a powerful voice to have speaking in your behalf. He tells us in Roughing It that the way the Chinese are treated is disgraceful. He was very, very much in the minority when he was taking that position.

What made you want to write this book?

Well, there is something of a Nevada hook to that. When I was doing the book on the Pony Express book, Orphans Preferred, I was in Eureka and I was talking to somebody there because I like to walk around the cemeteries and see them. Cemeteries in these old Western towns are full of fascinating headstones. People came from everywhere in the world. I was poking around, and I asked this lady where the Chinese cemetery was, because I knew that there’d been significant numbers of Chinese in this country. She said, “Well, the bone collectors came and took them all back to China.” And I had never heard that the Chinese repatriated their dead. I didn’t know much about it. So that was a curious thing that got me interested in the subject. Then I stumbled on Polly Bemis, who is the poker bride of the story, and she puts a human face on an experience that we know very, very little about. In her case she was a concubine, but more importantly she was someone who survived the experience of the Chinese in the American West, the 19th century West. She lived until 1933, amazingly. Came into the United States, 1872, and lived until 1933. It’s very rare for us to know someone as well as we know Polly. Her life covered the arc of that whole experience.

Sort of the same question on the Pony Express book—what made you get into that?

This is just coincidental, but I get a lot of journalism [assignments] as a contract writer after I left the Associated Press, and I was in Nevada doing a bunch of work for the Washington Post and some other places. And I saw this sign pointing to a Pony Express station, and I didn’t have anything to do. And it’s Fort Churchill, which is not too far from you. So I drove down there to have a look at it. And you know, in the John Wayne film that plays forever in our head … Fort Churchill looks like it should be a Pony Express station. … I was just curious about it and I came back East. I’m from Maine. I’m not a Westerner. You’ll also be glad to know that I’m not somebody who wants to be a Westerner in the sense of—I don’t think I’m the Marlboro man, OK? I find the American West a fascinating place, and it’s full of wonderful stories. So I came back East, and I started to read the history of the Pony, just as a, you know, curiosity. And I realized fairly soon that what we really had here was an American whopper. You know, it’s a bit like a fishing story. The fish just got a little bigger every year. Well, now we have a big one on our hands. I’m sure you know all this stuff, but the fact is, we’re going to celebrate the Pony’s 150th anniversary and the truth of the matter is that it was only in business for 78 weeks, it hemorrhaged money from the day it started, it really didn’t move that much mail, but by god, in memory it’s a colossus. That’s a very American story. I think Americans love those stories. Anyway, that’s what interested me. I don’t know if that sounds interesting, but it certainly interested me. Also, no one had ever written a book like that. All the books you read about the Pony Express, they’re largely nonsense.

And I’ll bet you ran into some resistance from that interpretation, too.

Well, a little, but I think most people understood what I was doing. The National Pony Express Association gave me a nice reception. I’m the keynote speaker at the celebration in St. Joe for the 150th anniversary. Most people realize, Dennis, that it was a story that was rooted in fact and layered with fabrications, a little bit like Paul Revere’s ride. And I was not debunking anything as much as I was celebrating the American propensity for a good story. You know, it’s a tall tale, to some degree, and they don’t get much taller, the Pony—that’s a tall one. But it’s wonderful piece of Americana. … It’s an enduring memory. People love the memories of the Pony. I love the memories of the Pony. I’m not deriding the memories of the Pony Express, but I’m just pointing out some of these things are attached to it. If I’m talking too fast I can shut up. … When I started to do this story—you may appreciate this as a journalist—when started to do this story, you would not believe the number of people I met whose great-great grandpa rode for the Pony Express. I met so many people whose great-great grandpa rode for the Pony Express, Dennis, you could have lined them up between St. Joe and Sacramento and passed the mail hand to hand, saved money on horses. It’s that kind of a story. I hope that makes sense to you. And I say that in an affectionate way. I really, I think it’s an affectionate look at what is an American whopper.