The Chinese Laundry
A Novel of the San Juan Mountains

by Robert B. Boeder (Malawi 1965–66)
Fayetteville, NC: Old Mountain Press
247 pages
$12.95 + $3.50 s&h

    Reviewed by Wayne Handlos (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    FOR THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS my wife and I have traveled to Colorado two or three times a year visiting our son and my wife’s relatives. Tracking down ancestral graves and homesteads have consumed parts of our visits there and now I find several of my more distant relatives also live in Colorado. Consequently, we have been plied with all kinds of literature and information about this wonderful state.
         Robert Boeder has taken us further into the historical aspects of Colorado with this book about a fictitious Chinese laundryman in Silverton, Colorado at the end of the 19th century. I enjoyed the background material and Boeder’s descriptions of the setting for this story. His descriptions are full and vivid. I have no difficulty imagining the area in and around Silverton. I suppose many of us are intrigued by mining in the old West, the politics of minerals and small towns, the characters seeking elusive fortunes in a multitude of endeavors, successes and failures, life and death in a difficult environment, the seedy side of a romantic past.
         But, I was disappointed by this so-called novel — I guess I would call it a novella. The type is large and the story line is thin. I haven’t counted pages but I feel that more words were devoted to the young woman, Rose, who came to join her brother, who died shortly before she arrived. Lee, the laundryman, and Rose’s lives intersect and intertwine. The book could have easily been titled The Downfall of the Innocent Maiden – A Novel of the San Juan Mountains. From the title and the description on the cover, I expected to learn more about the plight of Asian immigrants in Western mining towns. I learned something but not much more than I already knew. Rose’s downfall was also predictable.
         I suppose this book could easily serve as an outline for a made-for-TV movie. Nothing too deep or controversial. Easily covered in an hour or two.
         The writing is easy to follow and nicely descriptive. The characters are clearly drawn and human. The skeleton for a novel is there but there is not enough meat. I would have been happier if this had been described as a long short story or a short novel. Then I would not have had expectations of something more complex and detailed.
         For a self-published book, the editing is fairly good. The typos are minimal — there are some though they are not distracting. The indentation of paragraphs sometimes failed. The treatment of colloquial contractions is not consistent — and this did irritate me as an old teacher. Most of the descriptions rang true to me. I do wonder if children were called “kids” in the late 19th century. After describing the difficulty of obtaining supplies, cranberries mysteriously appeared for Christmas tree decorations and Thanksgiving meals. On page 42, even if I had not seen my mother make her own laundry soap when I was young, right after WWII, my high school chemistry class would have told me that soap could not possibly be made the way Boeder describes it!
         An easy and interesting read — good for a short story (unfortunately it’s sold as a novel). I would expect more for the money.

    Wayne Handlos earned a Ph.D. in Botany at Cornell, and eventually returned to Africa and taught in Zambia, Botswana and Malawi from 1973 to 1986. He and his wife Diane (Ghana 1961–64, and a native Coloradoan), have spent many hours in the mountains and old towns of Utah and Colorado, learning about the miners (some of Diane’s forebears) and mining towns (especially Leadville where her parents and siblings were born) and marveling at the intricacies of geology and geological history in our magnificently beautiful western states.