Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Riding Freedom - Middle Grade Historical Fiction About Charlie "One Eyed Charlie" Parkhurst, A Famous Stagecoach Driver In the California Gold Rush Who Lived As A Man And Had A Female Body

Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick

Charlotte Parkhurst was raised in an orphanage for boys, which suited her just fine. She didn't like playing with dolls, she could hold her own in a fight, and she loved to work in the stable. Charlotte had a special way with horses and wanted to spend her life training and riding them on a ranch of her own.

The problem was, as a girl in the mid-1800s, Charlotte was expected to live a much different life -- one without the freedoms she dreamed of. But Charlotte was smart and determined, and she figured out a way to live her life the way she wanted.

Charlotte became an expert horse rider, a legendary stagecoach driver, and the first woman ever to vote. And she did these things at a time when they were outlawed for women. How? With a plan so clever and so secret - almost no one figured it out.

My note: This is a well-written fictionalized story about real-life One-Eyed Charlie, though by keeping the feminine pronoun throughout, the author never lets you forget that Charlie is "really" "Charlotte." But were they? Isn't it possible that Charlie was the more "true" identity for this historical figure?

While clearly a story of gender non-conformity, the question of Was Charlie transgender? is challenging, as these identities are self-defined. We don't know how Charlie/Charlotte felt about living their life as a man - was it solely to have a better life than they could have had as a woman? Or was it also because they authentically felt they were a man? From my perspective, if someone presents as a man, it's polite to refer to them as such. Thus, every time the author kept referring to the main character as "Charlotte," I chaffed.

But clearly, no disrespect was meant by the author, and this book makes you really like the main character. I enjoyed it.

Add your review of "Riding Freedom" in comments!


micah said...

I agree with you on the pronouns. We can only guess, since it's based on the scant historical snippets, but let's make it an educated one.

Also, the message this sends is it's possible to live as a girl who looks like a boy, but never to live as a boy, no matter how you feel.

I don't know of any middle grade books that have an explicitly trans protagonist (vs a gender non-conforming one). Do you?

ivanova said...

Really nuanced and interesting review of this book. I love Brian Selznick's illustrations in general, so I bet I would like that part of this book.

BTW I don't think anyone is "born a woman." Women are pretty big and old. We're all born as tiny babies! :)

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

good call on the nobody being "born a woman." Will change that to "had a female body."

the only middle grade trans story I know of is the graphic novels Wandering Son, book one and two. Links: