(4.5 / 5)
The Beaten Territory is a fast-paced, deeply textured tale of three women whose lives interconnect in late nineteenth century Denver. Annie, enmeshed in the prostitution trade, yearns to become an independent businesswoman, with her own saloon and brothel. Lydia, owner of the building Annie rents, is drawn to Hop Alley and the opium dents to supplement her laudanum additions while her naiveté exposes her to risks she doesn’t suspect. Annie’s niece, Pearl, is nurtured into the trade by her aunt and is soon trapped into a life of prostitution. Attractive and resentful, she plays the game, waiting for her chance to get out. The lives of the three women intertwine, but each exists in her own world, none knowing enough about the others’ affairs to sense how much of a spider-web their lives eventually become. When each attempts to satisfy her own goal, all are put in danger.
Samuelson-Brown’s use of vivid, metaphorical language brings historic Denver and surrounding towns to life. Many passages are almost lyrical in tone without subtracting from the story itself—a delicate balance. Her secondary characters convey the shadiness of the red-light districts of the past and add depth to the story. Setting and flavor are admirably accomplished.
But it is the masterful weaving of individual stories that makes this novel stand out as unique. At the onset, each character has her own separate story. Annie, Lydia, and Pearl each have dreams as well as flaws that hold them back. Samuelson-Brown adeptly establishes each of the three as sympathetic while never losing track of the rough edges that make them who they are. As she winds the three plotlines together into a complicated tapestry, she reminds the reader of the tragic influences of the underworld. The story is a captivating yet realistic glimpse into prostitution in the Old West and how trapped such women became, despite their strengths.