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Article in San Francisco Books & Travel – Winter 2011/12


COWBOY UP: Art Kusnetz reviews Karen Kondazian’s The Whip


One thing I learned growing up around horses is an appreciation for Cowboy culture. Cowboys by nature tend to use idioms as shorthand to express their feelings. For example, “I loved you better than my horse.” This means I’m breaking up with you and I regret my foolishness for letting you into my heart—a mistake which I now recognize and rectify. Cowboy culture can be both a philosophy for life and a mindset for dealing with the world. This mindset lends itself to great stability especially in the face of adversity and is often invoked by the simple phrase, “Cowboy Up.”

Like a nugget of gold pulled from the riffles, Karen Kondazian’s debut novel The Whip embodies this cowboy culture. The Whip is based on the true life story of Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst, who, for thirty years, passed as a man. Working as a Whip, a stage coach driver, for Wells Fargo, she became one of the best at her job and that was before she shot and killed a notorious bandit in a gunfight! Her secret only became known upon her death—her motivations remained a mystery.

Through the eyes and experiences of a fictionalized Charlotte Parkhurst, we meet an orphan who discovers a life worth living through her interaction with horses. From her surrogate father, an older, black livery stable hand, she learns about love, family and the irrelevance of race. But it is her subsequent relationship with a black man, something the surrounding culture cannot abide, which leads to tragic consequences. From that, we find motivation for the anger and frustration that led her to don men’s clothing and seek her revenge. What makes the Parkhurst character so compelling is the philosophy of the Cowboy expressed by Kondazian through Charley’s thoughts and speech. “Life’s going to upset your wagon. Maybe someone’s riding next to you can help you set it right. Maybe not,” or “A good kick in the head, if you survive it, is bound to make you examine your life, one way or the other.” Yup, both statements wise, pragmatic and straight out of Cowboy speak.

The Whip may just be a book for the times. We can all use a little Cowboy wisdom ‘bout now and Charley Parkhurst may jus’ be the gal to bring it. “I done my share of thinking about life, the way a man does when his clock starts to winding down; an whilst I never been one to be shook hard over heaven, I do believe we are guided at times by an invisible hand.” There’s faith in a nutshell. What does Charley say about adversity? “Just change your mind about it. Just decide to stop struggling and embrace it all as a gift.” There is a strange and interesting toughness combined with a sensitive softness that makes her such an intriguing character.

Kondazian had her own experience with the invisible hand while searching for a publisher for The Whip. As she told Intimate Excellent, the Fountain !eatre blog; her friendship with Tennessee Williams led to her being photographed with him. When another friend wanted to use that photograph in a Tennessee Williams book, the publisher had to track her down to get permission to use it. That conversation eventually led to The Whip being published.

As Charley says, “Friendship, true friendship is a curious dance. Why does one recognize and embrace one soul and yet not another? Always we are searching for those recognizable eyes, so that we might at last be recognized ourselves.” And through Kondazian we have come to know, care and understand Charley Parkhurst and perhaps even ourselves.

The Whip, a thrilling and soul-searching read, raises questions about revenge and forgiveness as she takes the reader along dusty trails. Above all this novel captures brilliantly the zeitgeist of the stagecoach era.

.pdf file for download.

Art Kusnetz, San Francisco Books & Travel staff writer, is a consultant for bookstores and collectors.


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