chapter  6
Reclaiming Polly Bemis: China’s Daughter,
ByIdaho’s Legendary Pioneer RUTHANNE LUM MCCUNN
Pages 22

The life of Polly Bemis, born Lalu Nathoy, formed the basis for Thousand Pieces of Gold, a biographical novel that was first published in 1981 and has since been translated into six languages and adapted for a feature-length film.1 This essay explores the challenges I faced reconstructing her life for the novel and it examines subsequent discoveries. Polly Bemis, a woman of legendary status in Idaho frontier history, already had been featured in numerous magazine and newspaper articles. References to her also appeared in regional histories, a master’s thesis, and a pioneer’s unpublished memoir. But conflicting claims and gaps of information, especially about her life in China, made piecing together an accurate biography for the novel difficult. Moreover, while books on Chinese history and culture yielded a wealth of information about village life, bandits, and the flora and fauna of nineteenth-century northern China; histories of Idaho, even those sympathetic to the Chinese, failed to include the Chinese viewpoint. And although interviews with white people who had known Polly were possible, one of the many long-range effects of the intense anti-Chinese violence and legislation that prevailed in nineteenth-century America was the complete absence

of Chinese pioneers or their descendants in the Salmon River canyon and Warrens, Idaho. For Thousand Pieces of Gold, then, the life of Lalu Nathoy/Polly Bemis had to be reconstructed within these limitations.