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
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