Walsh (Becoming Bonnie) hits the jackpot with an impressive fictionalization of the life of Eleanor Dumont (formerly Simone Jules), a blackjack dealer in the Old West. In 1849 New Orleans, Simone, 19, is happy to be marrying trader David Tobin. But after Simone’s parents and sister die in a fire and David reveals his interest in taking over her father’s jewelry shop, Simone boards a ship bound for San Francisco for a fresh start. With a mind for numbers and memories of her mother playing 21, Simone endears herself to a gruff saloonkeeper when she brings in thousands of dollars at the blackjack tables, using her velvety feminine voice to throw the drunken gold panners off their game. A romance with Black freedman Arthur Reynolds is cut short after a New York merchant named Reuben Withers accuses Simone and Arthur of card sharping, then stabs him to death. Simone tracks Reuben across the West and sets up a gambling club in Nevada City, Calif., where she changes her name to Eleanor, earns the nickname “Madam Moustache,” and wonders if Reuben will show his face. Walsh weaves emotion and suspense with historical details of a woman persevering in the face of inequality as she finds a way to earn a living. Readers will relish Walsh’s fully developed portrait.
First reviewed on Publishers Weekly site on 7/14/21: https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-948018-95-1
Middle grade fiction readers will find By the Light of the Fireflies a fine historical novel based on the life of Colonial girl Sybil Ludington, following Sybil and her family's struggle during the Revolutionary War.
The story opens with the Loyalists to the British Crown coming for her father. They are accusing him of being a traitor to England.
Sybil believes in her father, and in the magic light of fireflies which (legend has it) appear when you need them most. But can they help her family when war swirls around them and they all are endangered?
As Sybil steps into a role she'd never envisioned, young readers receive an action-packed story that captures the environment and atmosphere of the times: "I used my musket to point into the dark forest, my own gaze following the long barrel. I heard Rebecca’s gasp. My gun felt heavy in my hands. I should fire it. It was what Papa told us to do. Fire it and he’d come running. He’d handle the situation, in this case: his capturers. Or worse: his assassins. I quivered. I wouldn’t fire my gun. That felt like hand-delivering a worm to a bird’s nest to be gobbled."
Forced to be assertive and proactive beyond her years and experience, Sybil becomes an inadvertent heroine as she struggles to protect everything she loves from the Loyalists and the evolving battle that engulfs her home.
Revolutionary War history and motivations on all sides come to life in the course of a survey that does an outstanding job of capturing the political and social sentiments of the times.
Jenni L. Walsh is especially adept at capturing the Sybil's first-person observations and emotions: "I pushed us north, toward the hamlet of Stormville. That’d be the point where I turned us south again. I yearned for Stormville. I wanted nothing more than to see that strip of homes. My hands were red. They burned from the cold, from where I gripped the reins and my stick. My jawline hurt, where my teeth had clenched for so long. My legs and back and torso ached from keeping beat with Star. My stomach felt hollow and grumbled for food. My eyeballs even felt as if they’d been rattled to the point of pain."
These drive a story line that personalizes the history in a manner that makes it understandable, realistic, and quite accessible.
Middle grade readers who normally eschew fact-laden historical fiction will find the emotional driving force particularly strong in By the Light of the Fireflies. This approach strengthens the compelling story of a young girl's trials, which forces her into the unexpected role of becoming a female war hero in times where girls and women normally are staid.
A concluding note from the author reinforces the real historical events that receive such evocative, personalized attention in the plot.
--Midwest Book Review
Reviewed June 2021
From its enticing cover to the turn of the last page, this novel is engrossing. A fabulously entertaining story about a remarkable woman who just wanted to be herself.
WRITTEN BY JENNI L. WALSH
REVIEW BY FIONA ALISON
From its enticing cover to the turn of the last page, this novel is engrossing. Alongside other historical women way ahead of their time, Simone Jules was the first female professional croupier. Her tale dabbles in love and revenge, but her game of choice? Vingt-et-un, which she introduced to the West in 1849.
After a family tragedy overtakes her life, Simone arrives in San Francisco, determined to reinvent herself, no longer a daughter or twin sister or fiancée. The miners flock to her table to spend their gold. Simone is striking, intoxicating, with a feminine allure, made even more so by her silky French accent, which she uses to advantage. She is well-mannered, intelligent, and business-savvy. She never allows a client to touch her. Her gambling houses are respectable—no cussing, no brawling—and she doesn’t hire girls! After another tragedy, she joins a mule train for a few years, reinvents herself as Eleanor Dumont, and sets up Madame Dumont’s with her own hard-earned money. Until the inevitable happens and the miners move on again, drawn to the seductive whispers of gold.
Simone is a drifter, a very successful one, a survivor with the will to overcome anything life throws at her. She sets up in many places from San Francisco to Kootenay, always dealing vingt-et-un, her specialty. We experience her wanderings, her hardships, and loneliness with her. The commotion and cacophony of noise in a place being built from the ground up and the subsequent quiet of the foothills are exactingly rendered. Many memorable characters come and go, but what stands out is Simone’s autonomy, her self-reliance, her freedom to go where she likes and do what she likes. A fabulously entertaining story about a remarkable woman who just wanted to be herself.
First published on the HNS Website (May 6, 2021): https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/a-betting-woman-a-novel-of-madame-moustache/
"Walsh’s easy, flowing prose breathes life into colonial America.... Middle-grade historical fiction fans will be swept up in the bravery of one young woman’s fight to save her country against a British attack." - Publishers Weekly, Editor's Pick
Walsh (I Am Defiance) again brings a powerful woman from history to life with this middle-grade adventure featuring 16-year-old Revolutionary War hero Sybil Ludington. Based on true events, By the Light of Fireflies takes on George Washington’s inner spy ring in the heat of the battle between Patriots and Loyalists, spotlighting the role that young Sybil played during an all night, 40-mile ride through colonists’ territory to muster the militia against an impending British attack. In Walsh’s spirited depiction, Sybil is a courageous, quick-thinking Patriot who dreams of growing up to be something more than a farmer’s wife–and realizes that ambition is within her reach through the fight to advance the revolutionary cause.
Sybil’s father, Henry Ludington, is a Loyalist captain in name only and spends his free time helping Patriots spy on the British. When pressures mount, he enlists Sybil and her sister, Rebecca, to help decipher code written with invisible ink on letters bearing crucial information about the British army, its troops, and their planned maneuvers. This opportunity is a dream come true for Sybil, who idolizes Paul Revere and hopes for her own chance to prove her mettle–a chance that emerges when she gets asked to ride all night in a terrifying crusade to save her family and her country. “I didn’t realize it was weird for me to want to be brave or daring or courageous like a man was,” she memorably declares.
Walsh’s easy, flowing prose breathes life into colonial America. Readers will find themselves in the thick of the Revolutionary War as well as eighteenth-century living: Walsh uses period appropriate language (“Mama shook her head bigly”) and detail, such as a family strategy game of “Nine Man’s Morrice in the parlor,” to capture the feeling of the past, and her handling of the long ride is crisp and suspenseful. History-minded young readers will be roused by this stouthearted protagonist’s unflinching dedication.
Takeaway: Middle-grade historical fiction fans will be swept up in the bravery of one young woman’s fight to save her country against a British attack.
Great for fans of: Celeste Lim’s The Crystal Ribbon, Pam Munoz Ryan’s Riding Freedom, Augusta Scattergood’s Glory Be.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
Print Date: 05/31/2021
It's very highly recommended reading.
A Betting Woman tells of Simone Jules (aka 'Madame Mustache'), who arrives in San Francisco in 1849 after the death of her family in a fire. Broke and bereaved, Simone needs a job, fast. Fate brings her into the unusual position of being a blackjack dealer at a card table, where she makes her mark as an exotic French-speaking woman who adds pizzazz to the process.
Jenni L. Walsh presents this vivid story in the first person. This approach brings the milieu of early San Francisco to life as Simone captures the City's sights, sounds, and women's lives.
But the story doesn't end there, because romance and murder lead Simone to a new town, a new identity as gambling hall matron Eleanor Dumont, and yet another revised life changed by death.
With the Gold Rush serving as the backdrop for her achievements and confrontations, A Betting Woman provides historical novel readers with a special blend of real history and fictional drama that will attract not just history buffs, but women who enjoy strong female characters determined to survive.
Walsh's vivid imagery and language is part of what drives this moving story, from its first paragraphs: "I had arrived; ready to start anew, with nothing but two trunks, a mouth of deceptions, and my broken memories. Opportunity whistled through San Francisco, where its gold was discovered accidentally, unexpectedly. One could’ve said the same about my coming here. Unexpected."
Walsh carries this spunky character's feel throughout life's slings and arrows and the buffeting, changing circumstance that drives her not outward, but upward. The addition of romance and its delicate dance is also very nicely described and compellingly written: "The night continued. David and I danced around each other in words, expressions, and stolen glances. To say his presence shook me and left me off kilter would be an understatement. I didn’t want to let on that I knew him beyond an old acquaintance, and he seemed to understand me and give me that courtesy. He didn’t refer to me as Simone, nor as Eleanor. Only Madame. His eyes flickered to my ringless finger now and again, perhaps wondering when and why I exchanged the title of mademoiselle, as I was so often called back home. Had I married? Or did I simply prefer the more respected title? I saw the questions in his head."
A Betting Woman is an engrossing story, very well done and hard to put down. Hopefully, it will reach beyond historical fiction audiences and into enthusiasts of women's literature who look for powerful voices, experiences, descriptions, and growth in their novels.
It's very highly recommended reading.
Reviewed January 7, 2021
An enjoyable search-for-identity tale with a strong female protagonist.
Based on a true story, a historical novel focuses on an unconventional young woman who introduces the game of twenty-one to mid-19th-century San Francisco during the California Gold Rush.
Simone Jules, not yet 20 years old, arrives in San Francisco in 1849, having journeyed for six months by sea from New Orleans, or, as she refers to America’s fourth largest city at the time, “La Nouvelle-Orléans.” Her departure from home was precipitous, a decision made after a tragedy took the lives of her family. In the throes of grief, Simone packed her bags and boarded the first ship available, determined to begin a new life. Left behind, without a word of explanation, is her fiance, David Tobin. She takes up residence at the Bella Union Hotel and negotiates with the owner, Monsieur Sullivan, to pay for her $2,000 per month room by working the card tables in the establishment’s gambling parlor. Sullivan assumes he will throw her out after the first night—women are employed only as bar or dance girls at the parlor. But Simone soon becomes a sensation at the Bella Union, teaching the rowdy gold miners twenty-one and becoming America’s first female croupier. Fluent in French, she discovers that sprinkling in a few words of the exotic language and adding a coquettish smile as she deals the cards quickly charms the men out of their newfound fortunes. It is the beginning of a unique Western adventure, with an indomitable female protagonist who repeatedly finds herself rising out of the ashes to forge a new identity. Although Walsh is working with scant available details about the real-life Simone Jules (aka Eleanor Dumont and Madame Moustache), she has wrapped an intriguing fictional melodrama around an assortment of historical events and personages, bending timelines and creating relationships to suit the arc of her lively narrative. The author effectively captures the excitement of a burgeoning San Francisco increasingly flooded with America’s new westward migration. Walsh also offers readers several engaging secondary characters. And through Simone’s later experiences as a supply-line muleteer to the mining settlements, the author vividly depicts the dangerously harsh conditions endured by the hopeful miners.
An enjoyable search-for-identity tale with a strong female protagonist.
Reviewed by Kirkus (12/28/2020): https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/jenni-l-walsh/a-betting-woman/
SIDE BY SIDE was chosen as an Editors' Choice by the Historical Novel Society in their August 2018 issue.
A very excitable thank you for the kind words!
If you haven't read yet, pick it up to experience Bonnie and Clyde's story through Bonnie's eyes! I'm told it's riveting 😉🙌
Please read the full review here.
Thank you to Shelf Awareness for the kind words and review of Becoming Bonnie!
Jenni L. Walsh imagines the story of the quintessential good girl turned gangster's moll in her debut novel, Becoming Bonnie. Bonnelyn Parker has always been a straight-A student and a straight-arrow girl. Since her daddy died, she's toiled extra hard to help her mama around the house while working nights and weekends at a local diner. But times are tight in Prohibition-era Dallas, and when Bonnelyn loses her diner job, she's not sure how her family will make ends meet. Her rebellious best friend Blanche drags her along to Doc's, a local speakeasy that might have jobs for them both, and Bonnelyn starts down a different path--one that will change both her life and name.
See the review on Shelf Awareness here.
I love hearing what readers thought about Becoming Bonnie, and Katie (aka Girl About Library)'s early review made me smile. Please take a minute (literally) and hear what she has to say!