Life may have been hard on Addie French, but when she meets friendless Emma Roby on a train, all her protective instincts emerge. Emma's brother is seeing her off to Nalgitas to marry a man she has never met. And Emma seems like a lost soul to Addie-someone who needs Addie's savvy and wary eye. It isn't often that Addie is drawn to anyone as a friend, but Emma seems different somehow. When Emma's prospective fails to show up at the train depot, Addie breaks all her principles to shelter the girl at her brothel, The Chili Queen.
A whorehouse madam, a bank robber, a mail-order bride and a former slave romp around 1860s New Mexico in this fifth novel from the author of The Persian Pickle Club. As she has before, Dallas weaves a beguiling plot and creates engaging characters and dialogue. The first part of the book is narrated by Addie French, a madam at the Chili Queen whorehouse, whose language is salted with colorful metaphors. "Some men liked scrawny women," she explains, "just as some men picked chicken wings over drumsticks." In the second section, the central figure is Ned Partner, a hunky bank robber and would-be rancher whose emotional innocence contrasts with his smooth ways in the bedroom and behind a gun. Next, there is Emma Roby, a mail-order bride with a secret past who is temporarily boarding at the Chili Queen, and finally Welcome, a former slave turned whorehouse cook. Because Emma and Welcome are not as well drawn, the closing chapters lose momentum; they are also glutted with backstory. When Dallas tries to cover subjects like sexual abuse and other types of violence, her light tone can't support the heavier themes. Still, the zesty, offbeat charm of life among these undesirables in the seedy West keeps this tale moving smartly. Literary Guild and Doubleday Book club alternate; 5-city author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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St. Martin's Press
September 09, 2003
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Excerpt from The Chili Queen by Sandra Dallas
As the train pulled into the shabby station at Palestine, Kansas, the pinch-faced farmers and their wives in their rusty black-wool best lined up along the tracks like the teeth of a rake. In the Kansas heat, three boys slumped on an empty baggage cart in the shade of the depot, too listless even to tie a tin can to a cat's tail. A bitch in heat wouldn't draw a yellow dog under that sun, Addie French thought, as she shaded her eyes from the hurtful glare of the prairie, which was bleached the dirty white of worn underwear. She put a handkerchief to her nose, as if to block out the stench of sweat and barnyard and old pancakes that clung to the farmers' clothes. Although she had spent well over half her thirty-six years off the land, Addie never forgot the sour smells of the farm. She wiped her damp face and neck with a soiled handkerchief, leaving behind streaks of dirt on her wet skin.
The trip to Kansas City had been even more successful than she had hoped, financially, at any rate, and she was going home to New Mexico with enough money to buy a new cookstove and add a front porch to The Chili Queen. The gentleman friend she met there every August on his annual business trip to the city had shown her an especially good time, bought her two dresses, and paid generously for her companionship. In fact, he had been so attentive that Addie wondered if he might suggest a permanent relationship. Perhaps his wife had died at last and he was ready to propose a formal arrangement -- not that she was interested, of course; still, it would do a girl good to be asked. As the week came to a close, however, he told Addie that he was moving to Montana with his wife, and he was sorry, but he wouldn't be seeing her again. He begged Addie to stay two more days; he was as hot as a billy goat in a pepper patch. As she remembered their last night, tears formed in Addie's eyes, and she swatted at them with the handkerchief. She sniffed, feeling sorry for herself that such a nice arrangement had come to an end. Feeling sorry for herself was one of the things Addie did best. She'd miss him and the yearly vacations, although she wouldn't miss Kansas. Oh my, she hated Kansas, Addie thought, catching the stink of her hot, damp body. New Mexico was hard on her hair and skin, but she'd take New Mexico's dryness over Kansas's humidity any day. She was glad to be going home.
Perhaps she should have telegraphed Welcome, telling her she'd been detained. Welcome, Addie snorted, what kind of name was that, even for a black woman? For all Addie knew, Welcome had run off with the china while she was gone -- not that the china was worth anything. No sense to buy good china when the whores were likely to throw it at the customers, or each other. Addie valued Welcome more than the dishes. None of the other domestics she hired stayed for more than a few days, but Welcome had been there for four weeks, and rascally and outspoken as she was, she liked the job and planned to stay, or that was what she'd told Addie, at any rate. The first time she met her, Addie had had a feeling about Welcome, and for no reason she could put her finger on, she trusted her -- trusted her enough to leave her in charge of The Chili Queen while Addie was away. She could have closed down the hookhouse, but she was afraid she'd come back and find the girls gone. So she hadn't had any choice but to trust Welcome.
The woman had shown up one morning asking for work, speaking in that funny way she had; Addie thought it was a mixture of slavery talk and high-class language Welcome had picked up somewhere. Addie was desperate for hired help. Plenty of whores came through looking for work, although not when she needed them, it seemed. But not many women looked for jobs backstairs in a parlor house, cooking and washing for as lazy and ungrateful a group of human beings as ever lived. Addie'd have given the job to a blind man, and she didn't expect much out of Welcome.