Historical fiction as a genre is powerful in its ability both to educate and to provide insight into the voices and experiences of those who came before us. Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s novel Thousand Pieces of Gold (Beacon Press) does just that, tracing the tribulations of Polly Bemis, a nineteenth-century Chinese woman who is sold into slavery and prostitution in America and who struggles against all odds to claim her independence. In McCunn’s adaptation of this true story, Polly’s father refers to his daughter as his treasure, his “thousand pieces of gold,” and his decision to sell her reveals the desperation brought on by intersecting historical forces in China at that time. What follows is an exploration of the value and dignity of human life as Polly perseveres and pioneers across the American frontier.
Recently, Mount Logan Middle School in Logan, Utah took part in National History Day, a program through which middle school students create a project on a historical topic of interest. Hayley Stafford, an eighth-grade student, chose to create a documentary based on Thousand Pieces of Gold. The film features Hayley’s own research, contemporaneous photographs and pieces of art that illustrate the landscape of the American West and the lives of the Chinese Americans who immigrated there, and interviews with Ruthanne Lum McCunn herself who agreed to Skype with Hayley after learning of her enthusiasm for the book and its historical significance. To read more about Hayley’s experience reading the book and taking part in National History Day, click here. You may view the video below.
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