Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer
By Priscilla Wegars. Cambridge, ID: Backeddy Books, 2003; 24 pp., illustrations, biographical notes; cloth $21.00.
Polly Bemis may not yet be a familiar name in American history, but in her new book for children, Priscilla Wegars creates a captivating portrait of the unmatched contributions of this Chinese immigrant. Wegars wrote her dissertation on the history and archeology of the Chinese in northern Idaho from 1880 to 1910, and this research ultimately led her to Polly Bemis. Because Wegars has selected fourth-grade students as the primary audience for this particular work, she begins her story by locating Bemis' life within the context of United States history, and with an overview of the limited available information. Wegars writes—
Although Idaho's Polly Bemis is the Pacific Northwest's most famous Chinese American woman, almost nothing is known about her life or her family except that she was born in northern China, near Beijing on September 11, 1853. The same year, Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary celebrated the birth of their last child. Polly arrived in Idaho in 1872 age eighteen. After living there for more than sixty years, Polly Bemis died on November 6, 1933, when she was eighty years old. This is a true story.
As an educational tool, the book provides valuable insight for students on the struggles that immigrant women faced in the rural Northwest at the turn of the century. Interestingly, as Wegars points out in her biographical note at the end of the book, Bemis died in 1933, 10 years before repeal of the law barring immigrants from becoming citizens. Nonetheless, Wegars presents her as an American hero with an independent spirit and a unique concern for children.
Like a good field trip, Polly Bemis has a core of important educational information, as well as vivid historical details that capture the reader. After being sold into slavery in China, Bemis then traveled to the town of Warren, Idaho, and in 1872 was purchased by a Chinese man who later helped her to establish her freedom (according to Wegars there is no record of how this happened). Later, Bemis went to work for, and in 1894 married, Charlie Bemis, and the two moved to a small ranch in the Salmon River Canyon, north of Warren. For the benefit of her young readers, Wegars accentuates the richness of Polly and Charlie's life on the river, and adds interesting information such as what they grew in their garden, the strategies that they used to visit their neighbors on the river, and how for a short time the couple kept a mountain lion as a house pet. The book does not contain a map, however, which might be a useful aid for some students who are unfamiliar with the geography of the Northwest.
Given her enjoyment of life on the river as well as the initial challenges that Bemis faced in the process of establishing herself in America, it may come as a surprise to some readers that she opted to move back to Warren in 1922 after the death of her husband. According to Wegars, Bemis welcomed the change, which included her first stay at a public hotel and her first visit to a movie. While living in Warren, Bemis became friends with Johnny Carrey and his younger sister Gay, who were both elementary students staying in town during the academic year because their family's home was too far away. Aware of the fact that girls, unlike boys, could not reside at public hotels without their parents, as well as limitations that her own lack of formal education had caused her, Bemis invited Gay to stay at her house during one school year. Once again, Wegars adds details about picnics and fishing trips that Bemis enjoyed with Gay and Johnny, which has an air of familiarity that may remind readers of their own time spent with a favorite relative.
Educators will be interested to know that in her acknowledgements, Wegars makes special mention of the "numerous Idaho fourth-graders and their teachers" who contributed to this book. Wegars painstakingly portrays Polly Bemis as a historical figure who fills a void within many American history textbooks. Wegars hopes that this book will help dispel the myth that all American pioneers came from Europe. Wegars states that "the book will help students to see Polly as a person who overcame many difficult circumstances, but whose strength of character enabled her to overcome these adverse influences and become respected and admired by everyone who knew her, even during a time when most people of Chinese ancestry faced a great deal of prejudice simply because of their race."(1)
Wegars dedicates her book to Johnny Carrey who provided some insight about Bemis before he died in 2002. In addition, Wegars also includes two significant photographs: one of Polly in her wedding dress and another of Charlie. These two photographs will be of particular interest to young readers because Bemis gave them to Gay Carrey before she died. The realization that Bemis entrusted these historic documents to an individual of approximately their same age may give students an opportunity not only to consider how history is recorded, but also the personal relevance that history has for them.
American Association of State Colleges and Universities
1. Telephone conversation with Dr. Priscilla Wegars, June 16, 2003.