If more authors wrote history like Durangos Lorina Ewing, we Americans would know more about our collective past than any nation on Earth.
Ewings new book, Diary of an Alaskan Madam, shows the hardships of life during the Alaskan gold rush at the turn of the 20th century like no textbook I remember reading. But then most textbooks dont tell the story from the perspective of a quick-witted, big-hearted and politically savvy prostitute. Perhaps they should.
To be clear, this is a novel. Ewing writes the story as a journal from the perspective of Mandy Stockton, a prostitute from Durango who sets out from Seattle in 1899 bound for Nome, Alaska, where she is promised a promotion to Madam in the burgeoning outpost by a childhood friend.
The book pulls no punches when it comes to chronicling the day-to-day existence of a boomtown hooker. That included about 10 to 20 men each day, disease, violence and filth, but also some genuine affection. Ewing puts a human face on working girl and client alike, and the result is a very personal look into those real lives, fictional though the characters are in this case.
But the salacious details are merely window dressing to make the pages turn a bit faster. What Ewings done with Diary is simply to use Mandy as a unique conduit to describe an area that has deep meaning for her and to tell a story that is underreported in most high school history classes. The author spent eight years in Nome in her 20s before settling in Durango where shes been a teacher for 19 years. Nome was every bit as lawless as any other American frontier town, full of claim-jumping thieves, cheats and political hacks. It was a town that grew too quickly from a tent city to one with more substantial buildings but no infrastructure to support its own growth.
This place is ridiculous ... People and horses alike almost drown in the muck trying to get from one side (of the street) to the other, Mandy writes in a 1900 diary entry.
Through Mandy, Ewing reveals her own knowledge of the history and politics of gold rush Nome. Ewing clearly has done her research, making sense of the convoluted gold claim laws and showing the overwhelming futility that greeted most would-be miners and their get-rich-quick dreams. Only a handful of men actually got rich, and the situation got so bad that at one point the Navy had to provide ships to take thousands of the newly impoverished back to the lower 48. Ewing also includes several period photos in the book that provide invaluable perspective and reference for the world described in Mandys diary.
The ending to Diary of an Alaskan Madam is so unexpected that even a small hint could ruin the story for prospective readers. Suffice to say that Ewing has found a perfect balance of fact and guilty pleasure fiction thats hard to quit once you get started. Just try not to blush.