Is making a living worth risking life and reputation? For Au Toy during the American Gold Rush, it was. There isn’t another way. When her abusive husband dies from consumption on the journey by ship from China in 1849, Au is left with her freedom, but without a way to support herself.
The price women pay for independence and safety historically is high. Many women used the only resource they had – their body. For Au Toy, her choices are even more limited due to her bound feet. Not wanting to subject herself to sex work, Au opens a “Lookee shop” instead. The San Francisco bay held unspeakable danger though, especially when Au is “fragile” and “dainty,” twenty years-old, and “varmints” and “ruffians” fill the streets. Her loyal servant, Chen, is big and strong, yet the two need safer accommodations. Mining camps spring up and more men than women roam the area. Au has to be careful with who she allows inside her shanty to look at, but not touch her naked body. When one of her observing customers is a policeman from New York assigned to protect the area, he unnerves her. Ever careful, she works to not encourage him or any of her clients. And yet, John Clark’s gentle nature and soft voice give her pause. He tells her “You are so very lovely, Mrs. Toy. Your skin is like alabaster, your hair like spun silk.” He agrees to pass by regularly on his round for her safety. John Clark warms Au and yet she’s not sure exposing her heart is a good idea. She may never recover.
Grossenbacher’s Madam in Silk is a suspenseful romance to be sure, but also a treat for those longing to travel through history. She captures the essence of people, time-period, setting, and historical events perfectly. Her dedicated research is obvious. She also captures the dangers and stigma women face in order to make a living no matter the time in history. Though a historical account, the situation unfortunately exists present day. Grossenbacher reminds readers of humankind’s ability for cruelty and evil, but also for kindness and love. A heartwarming novel intricately plotted with historical data. A valuable exploration too of how women, especially foreign women, fit into the larger scheme of Gold-Rush history.
Madam in Silk by Gini Grossenbacher. Jgks Press, July 2019.
Reviewer bio: Christina Francine is an enthusiastic author for all ages. She is the author of Special Memory (picture book) and the Mr. Inker series (leveled readers). Journal of Literary Innovation published her analysis on students’ writing across the nation Spring 2016. She believes individual learning style may solve world problems.