First of all, before I get into the review, I have to point out that The Whip is an honest to gosh, cross my fingers, true story. It’s based on the life of Charley Parkhurst, a young woman who, following the death of her husband and child, spent much of the 19th century tracking down their murder . . . as a man.
This is an authentic old west tale, complete with a lynching, stagecoach chases, gun fights, and more. It’s the story of a woman who is so successful at being a man, not only is she allowed to vote (oh, the horror – LOL!), but she successfully takes her secret to the grave – or so close that it doesn’t really matter. There are, admittedly, some liberties taken with her story, but more to flesh out the grey areas than to significantly alter or misrepresent anything about her. That’s an important distinction to make, because she is most definitely not your typical heroine. In fact, at times, she is downright nasty.
Reading Charley’s story, you really get a sense of what life was like for a young, widowed woman in 19th century America. In hindsight, it’s all too easy to see her as a kind of social rebel, a precursor to the feminist movement of the mid 20th century, but the truth is she was guided by two things – the need to survive, and the desire to avenge her family – and advancing women’s rights wasn’t one of them. Charley’s life was a difficult one, both before and after losing her family, with one obstacle after another forced into her path. I daresay most men wouldn’t have been able to continue under such conditions!
The early scenes at the orphanage, with the cruel headmistress and boy-cum-monster are a bit over-the-top, but not so much as to detract from the overall story. They really help to set up Charley as a young (wo)man with potential, while her budding romance with an African American blacksmith is a nice touch, further establishing her as an early outsider.
I must say, Charley’s transformation certainly doesn’t paint the men of the time in a very flattering light, but it’s honest and down-to-earth. It’s about more than just dressing the part – it’s about walking the walk, talking the talk, and acting the role 24X7. She learns to smoke, chew tobacco, cuss, and fight with the best of them, but to Kondazian’s credit, she never comes across as some ‘butch’ character – we know there’s a woman at the heart of Charley, but the necessities of life dictate a different path.
Very well-written, this has the feel of something like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven – a raw, realistic, powerful western that stays well away from the spaghetti roots. If you're taking part in my Transcending Gender Reading Challenge, this would be a great read to kick things off.