This guide was made possible by a grant from The John
D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Thousand Pieces of Gold tells the extraordinary story of
Lalu Nathoy, later known as Polly Bemis. Her father calls his thirteen-year-old
daughter his "thousand pieces of gold," but when famine strikes
northern China in 1871, he is forced to sell her. Lalu is first
sold to a brothel and then to a slave merchant bound for America,
before being auctioned to a saloonkeeper, and finally offered as
a prize in a poker game. A few fictitious characters have been added
and certain events transposed for the sake of the narrative, but
the essential story of Polly's life remains accurate. A biographical
novel, Thousand Pieces of Gold is about the life of
a remarkable woman and her struggle for respect and dignity in the
early American West. It's a moving and inspirational read.
About the Author
RuthAnne Lum McCunn, a Eurasian of Chinese and Scottish descent,
has published seven books on the experiences of Chinese people in
America. Among these highly acclaimed works are Sole Survivor:
A Story of Record Endurance at Sea; Chinese American Portraits:
Personal Histories 1828-1988 and her most recent, Wooden
Fish Songs. Her award-winning books have been translated into
eight languages. A former teacher, she currently resides in San
Francisco and lectures extensively at universities and community
Ideas for Discussion
- In Chapter 8, Ding says to Lalu, "Don't you understand, you
cannot escape your fate?"(p.77). How does this book embody the
debate on predestination vs. determining one's own future?
- Discuss the various meanings behind the title, "Thousand Pieces
of Gold." Do you think it is an appropriate title for this book?
- Do you think the author presents a realistic portrait of race
relations in a small, yet polarized American community? How about
the role of women in a largely male community? Discuss how you
think it feels to be a minority in a similar situation.
- "For the Gold Mountains they had described was not the America
she would know. This: the dingy basement room, the blank faces
of women and girls stripped of hope, the splintered boards beneath
her feet, the auction block. This was her America."(p.102). This
small passage touches upon the idea of the American Dream'
and how reality is often very different than immigrants imagined
it to be. Do you think immigrants still experience these same
feelings in America today? Describe your own personal experiences.
- During the course of the book did you ever think Lalu fit into
the role of a China doll?' If so, when does her status start
to change and what events contribute to her eventual liberation?
- Charlie speaks of the limitations Lalu will have as a Chinese
person living in 19th century America. Besides her
decision to not have children, in what other ways does Lalu show
that she is aware of these limitations?
- To what degree does Lalu loosen her ties with her Chinese background?
Mention some examples from the book.
- Does Jim's concern for Lalu match the brief relationship she
had with the bandit Ding? How do the two relationships differ?
- Lalu is told by Charlie that a Chinese person in America cannot
own land. Considering Lalu's love of farming and land, does she
ever accept this concept? Give examples of her defiance and perseverance.
- Is Charlie's and Lalu's relationship similar in some ways to
the one Lalu formed with her father when she worked in the fields
of northern China?
- "And when you became of age, your mistress would have found
you a good husband, and you would have been free again. Now you
are neither snake nor dragon. You are a woman, yet you work like
a man, a laborer. Who will marry you?" (p.356). Discuss the daily
discrimination Lalu faced in China and how it differed from the
discrimination she faced in America.
Praise for Thousand Pieces of Gold
"[A] story of struggle and survival as a woman-and slave- in China
and the American West...Fast-paced and entertaining-packed with
adventure, drama, and inspiration."
—Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, San Francisco Chronicle
"RuthAnne Lum McCunn has woven an enthralling work of fiction from
the true-life story of Lalu Nathoy."
—Elena Brunet, Los
"A valuable book that gives Chinese Americans another true heroine."
—Maxine Hong Kingston
"Lalu is a living, vital person from page one until her death...[She]
emerges as a person of dignity, intelligence, devotion, even humor.
Author McCunn has given me a friend I'll never forget."
Alexander, Peninsula Times Tribune
"From Shanghai to San Francisco, Lalu Nathoy's courageous journey
is an important contribution to the history of pioneer women."