Book Review for “A Betting Woman: A Novel of Madame Moustache” by Jenni L. Walsh.
Summary: “When her whole family dies in a fire, young Simone flees her grief and travels west to reinvent herself in burgeoning San Francisco. Down to her last dollar and facing some unsavory options, Simone quick-wits her way to a gambling table where she begins to deal vingt-et-un—modern-day blackjack. Word travels fast among of this French-speaking, card-playing novelty, and she begins to build a new life for herself. Self-sufficient Simone doesn’t count on falling for an artist— not to mention a man of a different skin color—who society, and the law, says she can’t have. When he is murdered, Simone is devastated and sets off to find closure for his death. Finding her way to a new boomtown, she adopts a new name, Eleanor Dumont, and opens her very own gambling emporium. “Dumont’s Place” is a great success, drawing mountain men and fortune seekers from far and wide. But the boom and bust of the gold rush stops for no one, nor do the challenges of a man’s world. Eleanor must continue to fight—for her livelihood, for her self-worth, and most of all, for her legacy.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical – 19th Century; USA – Louisiana, California; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical, Gold Rush, Feminism, Coming-of-Age.
Although the previous book I read by Walsh was about a woman I knew something about (“Becoming Bonnie” which is about the female of the notorious crime due, Bonnie & Clyde), this novel is about a woman about whom I knew absolutely nothing; I didn’t even know she existed until I read about her in the blurb for this book. Well, you know me; I can’t resist a good biographical, historical, women’s fiction novel, especially when it’s about someone about whom the world knows little to nothing. How Walsh found this person is beyond me, but I can already tell you that I’m very happy that she did. What a fascinating woman; what a fascinating life! We won’t even mention how the gold rush era partially coincided with the Civil War, and how that impacted people as well. But Walsh doesn’t ignore that in this novel, either.
What impressed me the most about this book is how Walsh got inside the mind of this incredible woman, and focused on a very central and formative time in her life. Written in first person, Simone/Eleanor tells us all of the things she goes through, concentrating on the parts that shaped her life the most, and made her famous as the first professional croupier in the world! Now, the first-person voice is one that can be difficult to employ when writing about a real person who is long dead. There are always the “shades of a ghost” that usually bother me, but Walsh avoided this by taking us to only one specific point in her life, which was (by my math) about 10 years before she died. Therefore, I think Walsh was wise in using first-person here, which allowed us to witness this as a coming-of-age story. by that I mean we see her go from the young, happy-go-lucky, privileged, debutant Simone Jules, to the scratching but wily Eleanor Dumont, to the Madame Moustache.
From the author’s notes, I can see why this woman was such great fodder for Walsh and this book. In fact, having mostly skeletal information about Eleanor herself lends well to allowing an author to fatten up the person. Together with this, the period was filled with various, well-documented, and significant events that would obviously have had some kind of impact on Eleanor’s life and livelihood. Walsh’s talent shines through here by her artful and evocative weaving of the facts available and her own imagination. This feels like a real diary or personal journal, and I think that’s what Walsh was aiming to give us. In this she succeeded. Also, much like anyone who writes their own story, there are things that the person will leave out – details and minutia that are irrelevant. Walsh copies this when she has Eleanor recount how things went on in a certain way for weeks, months, or even years. This may bother some readers who aren’t comfortable with how Eleanor skips ahead, but that didn’t really bother me. Mind you, Walsh could easily have made this book into a trilogy of books, with each one focusing on the three phases of her protagonist’s life – as Simone, as Eleanor, and as Madame Moustache.
I do have to say, however, that there was one thing that bothered me, which was part of the reason why I feel I had to take half a star away from this novel. It is hard for me to talk about it because I’m afraid it would become a spoiler, but let’s just say that one aspect of Eleanor’s actions (or more correctly, her reactions to something that happened to her) didn’t fit with the woman that Walsh had built up. The other reason for the half star off is that as sympathetic as Walsh makes Eleanor to her readers, there’s also a slight distance there, which prevented me from getting totally emotionally involved with how the story ends (meaning: she didn’t make me cry). That doesn’t mean I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this truly lovely novel, and give it a very respectable four and a half stars out of five.
Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing released “A Betting Woman” by Jenni L. Walsh on June 1, 2021. This book is (will be) available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.