One of the unfair stigmas surrounding self-publishing is that the work produced is “amatuer-ish”…
The new book by Sophie Rogers is set in 19th century Alexandra, New Zealand. The Gold Rush has been and gone. Alexandra is fast becoming a town of dwindling opportunities, especially for Ginny Doyle, an intelligent, young Irish woman with dreams of painting her way through Europe. New life is breathed into the town as Chinese miners arrive to rework the old claims. Curiosity draws Ginny down to the Chinese camp by the river, where she meets translator and miner Deming Yang. Ginny spends her days painting, lost in endless conversation with Deming as he mines. But there is more than just gold waiting to be unearthed; a murder, a mystery illness, a fire at the Chinese boarding house, a shared kiss and a dark family secret with the power to destroy everything Ginny thought she knew…
Ginny tugged on the ribbon bookmark in her Bible. Against her better judgement, she had slipped it under her coat while Mrs Perry still had her eyes on the weeds in the front garden.
“I am going to visit the Ansels now, Mrs Perry. Mother has been asleep for the past three hours. I have left some stew on the stove if she wakes and is hungry,” Ginny said.
“Have a nice afternoon, Ginny,” Mrs Perry said, and then she turned back to the thyme bush she was trying to rip from the ground.
Once Ginny and Annie reached the end of Limerick Street, Ginny found her breath came to her in short, sharp gasps. She was uncertain whether it was her nerves getting the better of her or the bitter winter air.
“Are we going to be able to execute this properly?” Ginny asked.
“Of course. Minister Johnson told us to be missionaries in our own town,” Annie said.
Ginny studied the track in front of her. The hill sloped down into a bunch of trees, and she could see tin roofs and schist rocks through the bare branches. A man-made stone wall weaved along the back of the camp. A large fallen tree blocked the path, its roots fanned out into the open air, and some dragged in the river.
Ginny followed Annie down the track. The tree trunk was much larger than it appeared; it reached her waist.
A barrier that marked the line between the Chinese and the rest of the world. And Ginny was about to cross it.
“But let’s pray our mothers never find out we were here,” Annie said. She looked over her shoulder at Ginny.
The tree was too big to step over, so Ginny and Annie had to walk around the tops of the dead branches. Ginny tried to picture it in full leaf. It must have been a magnificent beauty in its day. The ground was muddy, and she had to lift her skirts as she scooted around the tree. Ginny could see the camp clearly from the other side. She gripped her Bible tighter now, wishing she had brought a newspaper or one of her novels too.
This was a bad idea, but Ginny didn’t want to leave. She was close to getting answers.
Two steps from the tree trunk, a new world was revealed to her.
The weak winter sun was bright today as it filtered through the tall poplar trees around the edges of the camp. Their striped shadows stretched to the river. In the shaded parts of the hill were deep patches of stubborn frost from days gone by. There was no grass here either; only thickets of thymes bushes, schist rock and sand.
The foot track under Ginny’s feet bloomed into eight and crept all over the incline like the veins in the back of her hand. One vein led to the riverside, where gravel crunched under men’s feet and against shovels whilst the Molyneux rushed on by. This patch of the river was free of dredges. Instead, the men used cradles and pans beside the little water races dug into the bank.
The other tracks led to the seven stone huts scattered all over the hill. There were no clear sections or fences. Washing lines were strung between the huts, and one man had two potato sack-sized bags of rice stacked in his doorway. One hut had been built around a large schist boulder. A lower layer of the rock was wide enough to be a small seat, and a gap was left between the stonework and the natural rock to be a window. Ginny thought it was rather clever.
Only three Chinese men worked at the river. The other four men were cooking their lunches on a small fire in front of their huts. The smell of smoke and unfamiliar food was hot in the winter air and made Ginny want to sneeze. It was different from any living arrangement Ginny had ever seen, and she immediately yearned to sketch it.
A man at the river turned and shouted to another further upstream. The language he spoke was high-pitched and fast. Ginny couldn’t separate one word from another. Some syllables blended into one another, and other sounds were exaggerated as if he was tripped up by it. She wondered what the language sounded like when sung.
One man at the river had turned his head in Ginny’s direction. His long black plait had fallen over his shoulder and touched his knee. Ginny looked around. No one else had noticed Ginny and Annie. They were too busy working, cooking or eating.
Ginny’s heart was threatening to jump out of her chest and she was ready run back home.
“We should split up. It is easier to teach one on one,” Annie whispered. “How about you start with that man.” Annie pointed to the hut closest to Ginny, where a man was sitting on the ground, his back hunched over. “Alright then,” Ginny said. Annie raised her eyebrow at Ginny. “You look nervous. Don’t worry. It is easy. Read to them and smile. You have read to Thomas and Henry. It is exactly the same,” Annie said. Ginny turned to tell Annie that they were not dealing with two-year- olds, rather grown men, but Annie had already jogged up the hill to a Chinese man wearing a hat, who was bent over a newspaper he held flat to the ground with his hands.
Ginny looked away and back at the man closest to her. He was wearing a blue silk robe and an embroidered cap to match. His shoulders were lowered, and he put something on the ground beside him. As Ginny stepped closer, she saw it was a bowl.
“Good afternoon!” Ginny said loudly. Her words made swirls of steam in the frozen air. The Chinaman didn’t even flinch. She purposely placed her next footstep in the middle of a small thyme bush. The dry plant crunched, and the Chinaman finally turned his head. His slanted eyes widened.
Ginny swallowed hard. This was it. She sat on a flat schist rock sticking out of the dirt close to the Chinaman. Instantly the cold seeped through Ginny’s skirts. She nearly squealed at the sensation but willed her already jumpy heart to calm its rhythm.
Ginny stared at the confused man in front of her. She wasn’t sure how old he was.
“My. Name. Is. Ginny,” Ginny enunciated slowly. He said nothing. “I. Am. Here. To. Teach. You. English,” Ginny said as she held up her Bible. She felt like a fool, and the man in front of her obviously thought so too because he still looked confused.
Ginny opened her Bible. The rice paper crinkled as she smoothed the page and angled it towards the Chinaman. The Chinaman shuffled closer, his eyes strained. She grinned. This was a good sign. Ginny read Genesis aloud and let her index finger slide under God’s word.
“There was evening, and there was morning, the sixth—” Clothing rustled. Something metallic banged against a rock. Ginny looked up to see the Chinaman walking past her, with no acknowledgement, not even a glance in her direction. He took the short walk along one of the foot tracks until it met with the gravel shore and returned to his mining. Beside him, the other three men, who had been working, were now blatantly staring at her. Blunt rejection pricked at Ginny’s eyes, and her face grew uncomfortably hot in the freezing air.
The Chinaman Annie sat with was looking between her and then the page, his own finger extended. Ginny let the sight of Annie’s success fill her heart with a new determination. It would be wrong to let one Chinaman’s rudeness reflect on all the Chinamen in the camp. She would look like a right fool if she left the camp now. And Ginny was certain she was no fool. She was going to have her conversation with a Chinaman.
Ginny blinked hard a few times and rose from the cold flat stone. She smoothed her skirts once and then made the short climb to the next Chinaman. This Chinaman was tending to a small fire from his seat on a wooden crate. Above the fire was a frame that held a bubbling billy above the flames.
“Good. Morning. My. Name. Is. Ginny. I. Am. Here. To. Teach. You. English.”
This Chinaman stared at Ginny as the first man had. But then the man smiled, and the skin around his angled eyes wrinkled. He stood up. Ginny’s heart nearly stopped.
She was about to be abandoned for the second time. Ginny was sure of it, but the Chinaman pulled the crate toward her and then patted the top of it. She smiled at his kindness and took the seat.
“Hel-lo,” the Chinaman said as he sat on the ground beside her. Ginny found herself taken aback by his unique accent and the way he hesitated between the syllables.
Ginny opened her Bible out on her lap. The Chinaman was sitting right beside her, and she found it was more natural for him to follow her finger along God’s word from that position. She even heard the man muttering under his breath.
Finally! She was making some progress!
A shadow encroached on the Bible page. Ginny looked to her left. The Chinaman’s muttering grew louder, and his head was moving closer to her bosom. She leant back. The Chinaman with the kind face was not looking at the Bible; his face was turned to her breast. He was leaning so far over that Ginny immediately worried he would fall face first into her. Her face burnt, and she fought the urge to squeal in disgust.
She promptly swung her legs to her right and stood up to get away from the leering man. He followed her with his head, and Ginny could hear him muttering something as she stomped away. She wondered if this was how Vile Stevens felt when his trousers fell down in broad daylight while he was still drunk from the night before.
Annie was still with the same man. Not wanting to disturb her progress, Ginny followed the foot track to the last hut with a man outside it. It was the hut with the giant schist rock instead of brickwork for the front wall.
Ginny couldn’t help but stare at the Chinaman sitting out front.
He wore European clothing – black slacks with braces, a white shirt and a short black coat. There was no hat or cap upon his head, nor did he have his hair in the long, thick plait his other campmates wore.
Instead, his hair fell only to the middle of his back. The top half of his hair was worked into a much shorter plait. The rest was loose around his shoulders. Ginny guessed he was tall too by the way his legs were folded as he crouched by his fire. As she walked up the path, he turned.
“My. Name. Is. Ginny. And. I. Am. Going. To. Read. To. You,” Ginny said.
“No. There is no need for that. I already read, speak and write English fluently,” the Chinaman replied.
“What— You, you can speak English? How?” Ginny stammered.
The Chinaman turned and glared at Ginny with his hooded eyes. Her words stuck in her throat as she noticed how handsomely dark his eyes were, even if they were angry.
“I learned in China,” he answered calmly.
“Oh. Well, um, I have something I would still like to read to you, if it’s agreeable?”
“I would prefer not—” Ginny heard footsteps behind her. “Ginny! How are you getting along? I saw that ungodly man staring at you inappropriately! How—” Annie said.
“Annie, this gentleman can already speak English,” Ginny said quickly.
Annie’s face dropped, and then she formed her lips into a smile.
“What is your name, sir?” Annie asked.
“My name is Yang Deming. But the English reverse our names.” Ginny watched Mr Yang’s eyes dart between herself and Annie. He was waiting for Ginny to explain. “My friend and I are here today to help teach these Chinese men English. We are aware they have not received a warm reception and thought it might help immensely if they could speak English,” Ginny said.
Mr Yang’s eyebrows stayed narrowed.
“I can see why you would assume you are doing a kind deed, but my friends do not need to learn English, and nor do they want to.”
“But it is not just about that,” Annie interjected. “You all need help to see the Lord’s light and love.”
Mr Yang rose from his crouch until he towered over both Ginny and Annie. Ginny had been right. He was tall.
“I have heard of your God,” Mr Yang spat. “I have seen the trouble created in his name. That book” – Mr Yang pointed a finger to the Bible in Annie’s arms – “is pure evil! How dare you think you can come to our homes and shove your barbarian God down our throats. We did not ask for it, nor do we want it!”
Annie went white. “How dare you say such a thing! You terrible man,” Annie spat back.
Ginny was shocked. She had never seen such venom from Annie before. Ginny wished to pull her bonnet over her eyes and pretend she was never here. Instead, she was forced to watch as Annie and Mr Yang fired words at each other, their anger steaming into the winter air. She wished Annie had backed off when Mr Yang had told them he didn’t want a Bible reading.
“Excuse me, Mr Yang, I would like to know more about what you practise in China,” Ginny asked, hoping to calm the brewing storm.
Mr Yang’s dark eyes tore from Annie and landed on Ginny. He questioned her with his eyes, but spoke anyway.
“In China, we believe the white man’s God is the pinnacle of the world’s problems. You all read the same book, yet there is so much conflict over what it means, its true meaning. When a group of farmers read a map of the rice fields, do they all argue over the way the crops are supposed to be laid? No! It is insanity!” Mr Yang threw his arms in the air.
Ginny regretted opening her mouth. Beside her, she could feel Annie shaking.
“You are the insane one, Mr Yang! How dare you be so rude to two kind women who are trying to help you. You are the barbarian. We are leaving now!” Annie stomped her foot and stormed off.
Ginny was unable to move. Her legs felt like schist. She tried to give Mr Yang a sympathetic look, but his glare was locked on Annie. His jaw was tense, and his dark eyes burnt under his still-narrowed eyebrows. Mr Yang turned his head back towards Ginny.
“You should leave now,” Mr Yang said, “and never come back.”
NightShades and Paperwhites