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The White Devil’s Daughters, by Julia Flynn Siler.

May 4, 2019

White Devil's Daughters
The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco, by Julia Flynn Siler. Knopf, 2019.

2 stars

Detailed, somewhat rambling anecdotes about the Occidental Mission Home established by Protestant women in San Francisco in 1874 to rescue Chinese women from “sex slavery” and convert them to Christianity.

Julia Flynn Siler is an American journalist and non-fiction writer who has covered diverse topics in many different countries for twenty years.  She graduated from Brown and Columbia and contributed to Business Week, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Her previous books focused on Hawaii, and the wine industry.  She has won awards for her writing.  The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded a grant for 2016-2017 to research and write about white Protestant women’s work to end prostitution in San Francisco.

As Silver makes clear, Chinese women in San Francisco were horribly abused. Many of them had been stolen or bought from their homeland.  The ratio between Chinese women and men in the city was extremely unbalanced.  They were forced to live in poverty and filth in order to create wealth for their owners.  In the 1870s, Protestant women organized to help them escape their owners, live in a mission home, and hopefully to convert to Christianity.  Their violent struggle to free the Chinese led to legal and violent struggles.  In 1900, Donaldina Cameron, a single California woman, and her Chinese friend took over the leadership of the home and the project.

Silver has conducted extensive research into the primary source of late nineteenth and early twentieth century San Francisco.  She quotes from numerous newspapers and diaries and gives careful documentation for each.  The details she has assembled, however, are overwhelming.  Too many people make cameo appearances.  Too many disconnected incidents are described.  Details about food, clothing, weather, and people’s moods help pull readers into the accounts, but why they matter is not always clear.  There is also little sense of any overriding narrative or which characters are central to the book.

I found it also unclear for whom the book was intended.  There is little to engage scholars, and the book is too detailed to make easy reading.  It contains no analysis of the material presented or evaluation of sources on which Silver relies.  Many of the incidents which she includes are widely known.   Historians who have studied the topic tell very different versions of the often controversial events.  Yet Silver barely mentions and does not evaluate the accounts of others.  Those interested in Chinese women and those who would help them should at least consult the scholarship of Peggy Pascoe and Judy Yung.

The horrors facing the Chinese women and the noble efforts of their Protestant women benefactors are not to be doubted, but Siler does little to integrate her accounts into the large historical story.  Yet the sheer volume and scattered nature of her book lessens the pleasure and information it can bring to non-historians.  It is not clear why Siler received a NIH grant to write such an inadequate history.

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