ENGLISH PROFESSOR CHRISTOPHER CORBETT
When I was writing about the Pony Express, I spent a lot of time in central Nevada. There’s a town there called Eureka. It was a boom town during the Gold Rush, but there’s not much there at all now—except cemeteries. People from all over the world are buried in those cemeteries, but there are no Chinese graves. I asked this old lady who had a store in the town, “I know there were a lot of Chinese around here, where is the Chinese cemetery?” And she said, “The bone collectors came and took them all back to China.” I had never heard that the Chinese repatriated their dead, and my curiosity about that led me to this book. I found the Chinese before I found Polly, the poker bride.
The story is that she was won in a poker game, but you’re in what they call the “borderland of fable” once you cross the wide Missouri, so it’s one of those stories that’s rooted in fact and layered with a lot of embellishment. The larger matter is not whether or not the story is completely true; it’s that we know something about Polly. By the time she died in 1933 the Chinese in the West were just nearly-forgotten curiosities, but she’s the human face on this immigrant experience that we know so little about.
Christopher Corbett is the author of “The Poker Bride” and “Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express.”