Indiscretions Along Virtue Avenue: The Life of Sadie Orchard

Written by Harper Courtland
Review by Sarah Hendess

In Kansas City in 1876, a fellow prostitute falsely accuses seventeen-year-old Sadie Orchard of stealing a necklace from the madam of their house. Later, Sadie gravely injures the other girl, named Pretty Face, and flees to escape the law. Eventually she heads west, first becoming the assistant to an eccentric British woman, then returning to prostitution in various towns in Colorado and New Mexico. In New Mexico, she opens her own brothel and becomes a woman of business, eventually marrying J.W. Orchard, owner of a stagecoach line who teaches her to drive the stage. But when Pretty Face arrives in town, Sadie knows it means trouble.

As a record of the known events of the life of a little-known entrepreneur, this book shines. Courtland details the life of 19th-century prostitutes and the dangers they faced every day. Unfortunately, as a piece of literature, the novel falls flat. The chapters feel like a series of vignettes rather than pieces of a cohesive plot, and there is little connection between them apart from chronology—the sorrows from one vignette do not carry through to the next. Sadie loses friends and lovers seemingly without the heartbreak such losses should elicit. When Pretty Face appears in New Mexico, the book finally seems to pick up steam, but Courtland’s ending is so far-fetched it defies even the most willing suspension of disbelief.

Courtland clearly conducted thorough research to craft this work. She sets the chronology of Sadie’s life in the context of national events, and the little details she includes about everyday life in the West are fascinating. I only wish she’d taken advantage of the novel’s slim profile and filled it out with more emotion.