Spotlight & Excerpt: Prospects of a Woman by Wendy Voorsanger

A gripping and illuminating perspective of life for women in the Old West

The story of one woman’s passionate quest to carve out a place for herself in the liberal and bewildering society that emerged during the California gold rush frenzy

Prospects of a Woman
By Wendy Voorsanger

Elisabeth Parker comes to California from Massachusetts in 1849 with her new husband, Nate, to reunite with her father, who’s struck gold on the American River. She soon realizes her husband is not the man she thought—and neither is her father, who abandons them shortly after they arrive. As Nate struggles with his sexuality, Elisabeth is forced to confront her preconceived notions of family, love, and opportunity.

She finds comfort in corresponding with her childhood friend back home, writer Louisa May Alcott, and spending time in the company of a mysterious Californio Don. Armed with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance, she sets out to determine her role in building the West, even as she comes to terms with the sacrifices she must make to achieve independence and happiness.

Prospects of a Woman is a fresh, authentic retelling of the West that explores women’s contributions in California and shatters the stereotypes of the typical hard-boiled novel of the West that has captured the American imagination for over a century.

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Excerpt from Prospects of a Woman by Wendy Voorsanger

“God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please; you can never have both.”

Hiking out of the steep gorge was goddamn difficult, going barefoot over all those sharp rocks and prickly pine needles. She couldn’t very well wear Henry’s man boots with her only fancy dress on her first visit to Coyoteville, so she wore nothing on her feet. Done feeling sorry for herself, she was fixing to find some fun of her own. That Yellow Dog loped up too close underfoot, and she tripped on a rock sticking up on the trail, falling hard on her knees and tearing her emerald-green silk dress nearly to the waist, showing her dingy drawers underneath. Yellow Dog lay down on the trail beside her while she cursed and cursed, holding her toe, ripped open and bleeding. When he whined and licked her bloody toe, she pushed his muzzle away irritated, and stood up. She pressed on, stepping slower and careful now, walking and walking up the hill, reaching the top just as dark fell.

She limped over to a huge open-air tent lit with lanterns and lurked just outside, mesmerized. Wild with abandon, men culled from every race and nation mixed up crazy, dancing a twisted waltz with each other to a comic tune played out of time on a banjo, a fiddle, and two harmonicas. A bare-chested Nisenan accompanied the band with rattles tied ’round his ankles, strutting and gyrating and puffing like a grouse. Half the men wore pants patched front and back across their man parts with flour sacking that read Self-Rising Haxhall. Others wore sacks bearing the name of a Mexican hot chile. Having no women didn’t hinder the men, with some overcoming the difficulty by taking on the feminine role. Transfixed, Elisabeth studied the men and figured the ones wearing the patches were acting as women, prancing coy and light, following the lead of their men. Those not dancing cradled the arms of their partners, cheering and clapping ladylike, while the real men hooted and stomped furious to the bawdy music.

It seemed the ordinary order of things had gone askew, like some dirty dream brought on by fever. She watched the men, hips swaying, lips pursed, arms wrapped around each other. They groped and sucked on bottles, passing the drink in sacred, merry fraternity. The tune changed, and the fiddler led the couples in the Lady’s Chain square dance, blurting out steps in between plucking and bowing, the drunken men joining in verse. She knew she was witnessing something women shouldn’t see, something sick and sinful. But it seemed somehow sweet, too, as if the dancing cured the men of a vast loneliness that’d spread across their hearts since coming out west to find the women hadn’t yet arrived. She couldn’t turn away, fascinated. She spied the men from the dark fringes, when someone came up behind her.

“Have you come for the Fandango?” In the sinister light cast from the lanterns stood a man, imposing and peculiar. He wore a black velvet vest so short it barely reached the top of his loose-bottomed pants. Rows of shiny brass buttons ran down the sides of his pants, and he had a fine leather holster strapped around his waist. Without a hat, she recognized those moody eyes and shoulder-length curls. It was that Californio from Captain Shannon’s store. Out here the man seemed less lovely than she’d remembered. His hair splayed too long down around his face, and he swayed like he was a little drunk. She ignored his question, looking back at the dancers as her stomach screamed with hunger.

“Señora Elisabeth Parker,” he said with a wobbly bow. “Buenas noches. Soy Don Nemacio Gabilan.”

She looked him up and down, wondering if he intended to join the degenerate ball in the male role or strap on a sack.

“Good evening,” she said, cool. “I don’t think that particular Fandango is for us,” he said, nod- ding toward the tent and pulling on his own green glass bottle.

“You’re drunk too.” “Ahh . . . señora. A matter of perspective. Perhaps not nearly as drunk as them,” he said, leaning his hand on the tent pole behind for support.

“Is that so?” Yellow Dog bared his teeth at Nemacio. “Settle!” she said, snapping her fingers. Yellow Dog listened, lying down next to the tent pole, watching Nemacio.

“Dance with me,” he said. “I won’t join in that,” she said, pointing at the tent. Seeing the lewd lot under the tent put her in no mood for dancing. Besides, she’d learned from Mr. Chana that flirting with a man other than your husband is dangerous. Still, she’d worn her silk emerald dress for the first time since coming west and felt like a woman, even with her drawers showing through the rip down the side. Sure, she was barefoot with a toe stubbed bloody. But she’d combed the tangles from her hair and arranged it up high on her head with a green ribbon she’d been using as a bookmark in her Emerson book, and she’d scrubbed her skin raw with pine soap and hot water. She dressed decent, and knew she smelled clean.

“Let’s dance outside the tent,” said Nemacio, putting down his bottle.

Before she could object, Nemacio slipped his hand around her waist and turned her in circles, moving elegant and masterful, like he was used to handling a woman. Against her better judgment, she didn’t resist, allowing herself to be led around in the dark, forgetting all about her sore feet and the raunchy squawking fiddle.

Wendy Voorsanger created and manages SheIsCalifornia.com, a blog dedicated to chronicling the accomplishments of California women through history. Her debut novel, Prospects of a Woman, will be available October 20, 2020.


About the Author:

Born and raised on the American River in Sacramento, Wendy Voorsanger has long held an intense interest in the historical women of California. She started her career in the Silicon Valley, writing about technology trends and innovations for newspapers, magazines, and Fortune 100 companies.

She currently manages SheIsCalifornia.net, a blog dedicated to chronicling the accomplishments of California women through history. Her debut historical novel, Prospects of a Woman will be published in October 2020 (She Writes Press); an excerpt entitled “Shifting in California” won 1st place in the California Writers Club short story contest and is published in the Fault Zone: Shift: An Anthology of Stories.

She earned a B.A. in Journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a member of the Castro Writers’ Cooperative, the Lit Camp Advisory Board, and the San Mateo Public Library Literary Society.

In addition to being an author, Wendy has worked as a lifeguard, ski instructor, and radio disc jockey. Wendy lives in Northern California with her husband and two sons.

Author website: www.wendyvoorsanger.net

Additional website: Sheiscalifornia.com

Facebook: Author Wendy Voorsanger

Instagram: @authorwendyvoorsanger


PRAISE:

Prospects of a Woman is a fascinating, complex, dark, and beautiful novel of women and sexuality on the frontier of the California gold strike days.”

— Douglas Glover, two-time Governor General’s award-winning author of Elle


“I loved this surprisingly feminist story of Gold Rush-era California! Elizabeth Parker is a heroine to fall in love with–plucky, sensuous, courageous and clear-eyed. It is a rare and unusual pleasure to—finally—have a narrative of the Gold Rush told from a woman’s point of view.”

—Janis Cooke Newman, author of Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln

Prospects of a Woman is thoughtful and thrilling. The landscape of California – the rough-scrabble mining towns, the wildness of the river and woods — sings on every page.”

—Alex Myers, author of the novels Revolutionary and Divide

Prospects of a Woman is a riveting read about a woman who comes to California during the Gold Rush determined to escape societal constraints, find love and strike it rich. As a woman in a man’s world, she faces innumerable challenges but manages to rise above them. This is a bold, rollicking and satisfying tale, one that is hard to put down.”

—Frances Dinkelspiel, award-winning journalist and author of the best-selling books, Tangled Vines and Towers of Gold

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