“The White Devil’s Daughters” shines a historical spotlight on a problem that continues to plague the world today: human trafficking. The “white devil” was Donaldina Cameron, an immigrant from New Zealand who ran the Methodist Church mission home in San Francisco for over 30 years around the turn of the last century. The “daughters” were the Chinese girls she rescued from a life of forced prostitution.
Siler’s research is thorough, with 70 pages of notes and appendices. Using letters, journals, newspaper articles and other documents, she recounts the struggles of one determined woman against formidable opposition. Besides battling ruthless Chinese slave traders who would stop at nothing to get back their valuable “investment,” Cameron was also hamstrung by a political and judicial system that was often either apathetic or corrupt. Add to that an immigration policy that abetted the problem by refusing to allow Chinese women to immigrate, creating a ratio that peaked at 22 men to one woman, and you can see the difficulty.
At that time, churches were the primary opposition to the sex slave trade, and their efforts were motivated by a desire to offer humanitarian aid and evangelism. Siler details the stories of many of Cameron’s “daughters” who became Christians and spent the rest of their lives living out their faith by helping others who found their way to the home at 920 Sacramento St. over the years.
Siler’s academic approach to faith could be described as “looking at, rather than looking along,” to paraphrase C.S. Lewis. She spends some time examining the conversions of the Chinese, evaluating whether they were genuine or merely expedient. Though in most cases she concludes that their faith was real, and often includes quotes from their letters as support, this same story could be written by another author for a different audience and would probably have a very different feel.
If Cameron lived today, she might not appreciate the phrase “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” and yet it seems made for her. It’s ironic that someone so devout was also defying conventional roles and even breaking the law to do what she felt called to do. By helping other women gain their freedom, she gained one of her own—a theme that runs through the book. Even without any analysis, though, these events make for compelling reading.
Wendy Migdal is a freelance reviewer in Fredericksburg.