Reinvisioning the Nineteenth Century in Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker : Gender, Ethnicity, and Class

UNCP Author/Contributor (non-UNCP co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Amanda Marshall (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP )
Web Site:
Dr. Roger Ladd

Abstract: Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, an alternate history novel, examines the cultural and political atmosphere in late nineteenth-century America. It focuses on a group of women marginalized from mainstream society because of their race, culture, or class. The novel’s heroine, Briar, a poor working woman, is rejected by society and suffers labor exploitation. In response to her oppressive circumstances, she joins a community of women, and together, they rebel against an oppressive, patriarchal society. My paper explores Priest’s adaptation of the social, historical, and cultural background of the nineteenth-century and the treatment of gender, ethnicity, and class through her characters. Boneshaker examines nineteenth-century standards of motherhood and marriage. I argue that it disrupts the extreme codes that define motherhood and marriage because its women are not defined by their status as wives and Briar creates her own conventions for parenting as a single mother. They are not restricted by conventional, middle class nineteenth-century values regarding marriage and motherhood. I argue that as an alternate history fiction, Boneshaker has the ability to liberate and empower those disenfranchised by race, class, or gender. While Priest succeeds in freeing her female characters from oppressive nineteenth-century gender constraints, she does not respond to anti-Chinese sentiment. Boneshaker offers a historically accurate portrayal of Chinese racism in the nineteenth-century, but it refuses to effectively confront it in the same way it does for gender oppression and Native American racism. The women in Boneshaker are offered gender liberation, and the Native American woman, while she suffers from racist attitudes, is given the power to defend herself from her attackers. Boneshaker’s Chinese reflect nineteenth-century depictions that stereotype them as submissive and passive. In Boneshaker, they are effectively silenced through language barriers or disability, and are never given the opportunity to respond to racism. They continually suffer abuse at the hands of white male characters, but are never given the opportunity to defend themselves. I argue that Boneshaker’s treatment of the Native American princess Angeline is in response to nineteenth-century stereotypes of Native women. Priest refuses to reduce Angeline to stereotypes that liken her to middle class white women. In many nineteenth-century periodicals and literature, Native women were written to appeal to the middle class sensibility of white women readers. To achieve this, the depiction of Native women reflected the white middle class woman in looks and values. The role of the Native woman in popular nineteenth-century fiction was typically reduced to the romantic interest of a white man or she was depicted as the noble savage, willing to deceive her people to save white men. I argue that Boneshaker’s depiction of Princess Angeline as an independent, rebellious, liberated woman, offers readers a historically accurate portrayal of the Native American woman. The alternate history novel offers Boneshaker the ability to reimagine and reinvision the nineteenth-century; however, it does not always take advantage of its genre possibilities. Boneshaker is an example of the limitations and advantages of the genre in its inability to significantly respond to Chinese racism while also demonstrating class and gender liberation. Boneshaker offers women an alternate space in which they are given autonomy and act as active agents in the construction of history.

Additional Information

School of Graduate Studies
Language: English
Date: 2013
Nineteenth-Century America, Nineteenth-Century Women, Native American Women, Chinese, Cult of Domesticity, Marriage, Gender, Working-Class Women, Motherhood, Alternate History, Dime Novel, Steampunk, Cherie Priest, Boneshaker, Stereotypes, Racism, Nineteenth-Century Popular Culture, Nineteenth-Century Periodicals

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