Book Review: 'The Whip' by Karen Kondazian

BooksKristina PinoComment

It's never easy to, after living your life a certain way, just up and change every aspect of it completely. Nowadays it's even harder with the internet tracking your every move. Back in the 1800s though, the odds were still against you if you were female or black.

The Whip is about a woman who beat the odds. She even got to vote (as a man) in 1868.

Charley Parkhurst, orphaned girl with fair skin and golden hair, with nothing in the world besides her "brother" Lee Colton, lives a tough but independent life until she falls in love with a black man at age 35. She thought she'd found her happily ever after, but then disaster strikes and all is taken away from her. The decision she makes afterward: dress herself as a man and go out west to chase the killer. She becomes a whip (stagecoach driver) for Wells Fargo, one of the last and most famous of their kind at that, and makes a whole new life for herself. All while keeping her gender a secret from (almost) everybody.


Congratulations to Karen for taking best historical fiction of 2012 over at the USA book awards!

I like reading books that are based on fact. While the events of The Whip are based on truth, there is a bit of guesswork involved. After all, Charley did keep her secret rather well.

Karen Kondazian went through great lengths to make sure that this romanticized story based on Charley's life turned out as accurately as possible though, and it shows. Not only did she show up at places Charley had lived at to talk to historians and such, she also studied language and geography of the time, and anything relevant that would give her insight.

Charley, previously called Charlotte, hung on to Lee Colton, a boy four years older than her who protected her throughout their time at an orphanage. Eventually, she became so rebellious that the headmaster tossed her to the stables to work with a black stable hand called Jonas. Charlotte fell in love with horses and stayed there until she decided it was time for her to see a bit more of the world.

At age 35, Lee still comes and goes from her life, and she's working as a maid of sorts at a boarding house. She meets Byron, a black man who works as a smith in town, and they fall in love. Due to persecution issues in town, they move to the outskirts and start their seemingly quiet life away, until the KKK steps in and "accidentally" kills both Byron and their newly born daughter.

When she discovers who had done the deed, only a couple days go by before she decides to go hunt down and kill the man who ruined her life. She finds out he'd gone west, and this spurs her decision to take on a new gender and follow him over there as a stagecoach driver. This is where her real adventure begins.

I won't get into any further details because I can't do it any justice. Kondazian organized The Whip into short chapters that are pretty much written for film. It's obvious that she comes from a background of visual performance in the way she writes, the pacing of the book overall and the attention to detail in setting. She also includes accurate newspaper clippings, quotes, even Charley's obituary; and she dates each chapter that begins after a time jump.

More than anything though, The Whip explores all the deep inner turmoil that Charley might have felt being a woman of her time and making a living for herself as a free man. She didn't want to be a man instead of a woman, nor was she alone. As it turns out, there were other women like her who, at the time, for one reason or another, took to wearing pants and learned how to take the reins like the men of their time. I don't think that she met any other women like herself throughout her life, but it's an interesting concept for that point in history, even if the author did make a few improvements here and there for dramatic effect.

The Whip is a true delight to read, giving you a real and accurate portrayal of life in the Old West (circa mid- to late-1800s) and a reverent insight into the life of Charley Parkhurst. 

I'm actually disappointed that I'd never even heard of her until I read this book.

Lovers of adventure, books on strong women, nonfiction or historical romanticized novels or just plain fans of Old Westerns would all enjoy reading Charley's story. 

Special thanks goes to my book blogging friend Sharayah Pranger who reviewed the book at her blog and then gave it away. I was the lucky winner.