Invisible Racism in the Old West

The first and only book my biracial father gave me was the monumental biography Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (1942) by Mari Sandoz, who grew up in Nebraska, the daughter of Swiss immigrants. 

I was seven. As no gift should ever come without advice, at least according to my father, he said that this book would show me that whatever I learned about American history in school would be a lie. 

Attempting to write from within the Lakota worldview, Sandoz explained in her preface: 

I have used the simplest words possible, hoping by idiom and figures and the under-lying rhythm pattern to say some of the things of the Indian for which there are no white-man words, suggest something of his innate nature, something of his relationship to the earth and the sky and all that is between.

Sandoz’s biography was my introduction to the American West and a worldview that differed substantially from the official version taught in Boston public schools in the 1950s. 

Around 1970, I read the novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969) by Ishmael Reed. The main character, a Black cowboy named Loop Garoo Kid, practices a religion known as Neohoodooism. Written in the form of a radio play, the book begins: 

Folks. This here is the story of the Loop Garoo Kid. A cowboy so bad he made a working posse of spells phone in sick. 

Never one who was interested in Westerns or novels about white masculinity saving the day, I devoured Yellow Back Radio Broken-Down in one sustained burst of deeply satisfying page turning. 

In the mid-1980s, I read the epic novel Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy. The description of a tree hung with dead infants is unforgettable, hallucinatory, and psychically seems to me accurate to an America besotted with guns and Second Amendment rights. 

As much as these books meant to me, and in their worldview revealed something else about white America’s conception of heroism, privilege, destiny, and its love of violence, I always felt something was missing. 

That changed when I read Tom Lin’s debut novel, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu (Little, Brown and Company, 2021). This is a Western novel where the main character is a Chinese orphan, Ming Tsu, who was raised by a white man, Silas Root, the head of a crime syndicate in California. Root’s purpose is simple: he wants an assassin who is invisible, which is what the Chinese are to most of the people we encounter in this novel. 

Aided by a blind prophet, Ming is on a mission to rescue Ada, his Caucasian wife, while settling the score with the men who kidnapped her and forced him to work on the railroads. 

Tom Lin (photo by E. Pia Struzzieri)

The narrative begins in medias res, with Ming resting his horse after killing “Judah Ambrose, a former labor recruiter for the Central Pacific, who kept at his hip a five-shot revolver with bored-out cylinders designed for cartridge ammunition instead of the usual ball and cap.” The book is full of precise details such as these.

As Ming moves toward his destination — which the reader knows he will inevitably reach, though not the outcome when he gets there — more and more of his past gets revealed. 

This device of going forward while slowly filling in the past helps propel the book ahead, as readers will want to know more about Ming and his mission and how and why he became who he is — a skilled assassin in the employ of Root, who we learn is dead and no longer able to provide protection. 

Lin’s descriptions of the bleak, bone-dry landscape that Ming must traverse in order to reach his destination are the best I have read since John Hopkins’s novel Tangier Buzzless Flies (1972). Lin writes, “They rode through those incandescent days like a party of shadows, keeping the river at their flank.” In passages like this, Lin underscores the invisibility of the Chinese to white Americans in late 19th-century America. This is a book with no throwaway sentences, no filler. We learn about the different weapons Ming uses, including a sharpened railroad spike he keeps strapped to his boot. We learn about horses thirsting for water and the different kinds of wood used for campfires. 

As in any quest novel, even one driven by revenge, the main character is accompanied as well as aided by various figures. In addition to the blind prophet, who tells Ming that he is “a man out of bounds,” he picks up a traveling “magic show.” 

Starting with the ringmaster, each of the show’s five members possesses a special power. This is where Lin’s inventiveness takes off, endowing the novel with a weirdness that is riveting. 

In his first encounter with one member of the troupe, whose name we later learn is Hazel, Ming asks: “Have we met?” 

“In another life, perhaps,” the woman replied. “In another life everyone has met everyone.’” 

This is the mythical realm that Ming inhabits, where a blind prophet knows when someone’s time to die is coming, a woman he may or may not have met in another life is fireproof, and a young boy by the name of Hunter Reed is “the only true ventriloquist.” In addition to the ringmaster, and these two memorable members of the magic show, there is Proteus, “a naked and tattooed pagan” kept in a cage, who can become the “precise duplicate” of anyone he chooses, and “two stage hands, Antonio Gomez the Mexican, and Notah the Navaho.” 

Traveling across a hostile landscape populated by all kinds of threats and dangers, this strange group is the focus of much of the novel. There is no plot to speak of, which means that Lin has to keep everything interesting, which he does. This is the outlandish adventure story of an antihero who is Chinese surrounded by villains who are white and racist. In another world, Hollywood would make a movie of it. 

The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin is published by Little Brown and Company and is available online and in bookstores.

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