Anyone even slightly familiar with my historical novels will recognize that Jeffrey Staley’s Gum Moon falls right into the times and locations of my brightest interest and knowledge. The novel’s action is set in San Francisco and covers a time period from 1898 to about 1909. Of the multitude of incidents and stories the novel contains, the pivotal happening is the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Before that, Staley drops into a Chinatown world of incredible horror and brutality.
Underworld Tong bosses rule the day–and years. Opium and other drugs infuse the environment. The worst kind of prostitution is rampant. I mean “worst” in the sense of sex slavery among even the youngest of girls. They spend their lives in “cribs”– closet-sized rooms in basements and hovels entertaining customers at a dollar a shot. From previous reading, I know that until a San Francisco reform movement finally took hold in 1916, prostitution was not just a business, it was an industry. There were houses with 200 – 300 available women and girls. Young boys ran through the corridors in hopes of getting introduced to that legendary experience that fascinates most pubescent males. It was an atmosphere that would disgust all but the most lascivious. Unfortunately, there were–and are–plenty of those.
Fighting against all this during the time of the novel was a collection of religious organizations. Some were legitimate. They sought to rescue the sex slaves suffering in those cribs and to save them from a life of vice and squalor. Others were fake. Predators. Once they’d “rescued” their victims, these imposters bribed and manipulated their way into guardianship of the girls. Then they sold them on to other bosses or integrated them into their own “businesses.” Quite a racket.
Center to the story is a young three year old girl named Chun whose mother sold her to what she thought was a merciful white family because she couldn’t feed all her children. Chun finds her way to a Methodist orphanage dedicated to saving girls who are either in danger of becoming immersed in sex slavery or who are already there and need rescuing. Chun was one of the lucky ones. Life in the orphanage is not easy. There are whippings and harsh labor, but there is education and no rape. Chun even learns to play the piano.
She is, however, in danger of being pulled into the nether world by one of the fake rescuers. During her original “liberation,” the head of another organization manages to get his name on a document that makes him Chun’s guardian. The Methodist folks have possession of the girl, so there’s that. But the other guy has that paper. So, trouble. They go to court, represented pro bono by a lawyer who is romantically involved with one of the custodians. They are forced into court twice. The judge awards Chun’s custody to the Methodists, but does not void the bad guy’s guardianship. Then, when Chun is twelve, comes the earthquake.
The adults in the orphanage manage to shepherd their charges across the city, away from the fires and the wreckage of the building that had been their home. Next, the fires diminished, they trek miles back downtown to the recently-built ferry building, float their way to Berkeley across the bay, where accommodations await. All seems better. At least they survived.
According to the epilogue, many of the characters Staley introduces us to were actual people who lived beyond the cataclysm. For a while they seem to flourish and even thrive. But they still faced many difficulties. The racist attitudes and laws imposed on Asians not only in San Francisco, but nationwide pursued them relentlessly. Thus, Gum Moon is a combination of dream and nightmare. As a novel, it is a jewel of historical fiction. Grounded in real history, yet taking us simultaneously into the world of imagination. Few novels achieve both those things. It’s a rewarding and even inspiring tale. What more could a reader want?