Book Review: One Thousand White Women

33512Title: One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
Author: Jim Fergus
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Release Date: January 1998
Length: 304 pages
Series?: n/a
Genre: historical fiction
Format: paperback

Find the book: Website | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble 

Synopsis

One Thousand White Women is the story of May Dodd and a colorful assembly of pioneer women who, under the auspices of the U.S. government, travel to the western prairies in 1875 to intermarry among the Cheyenne Indians. The covert and controversial “Brides for Indians” program, launched by the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, is intended to help assimilate the Indians into the white man’s world. Toward that end May and her friends embark upon the adventure of their lifetime. Jim Fergus has so vividly depicted the American West that it is as if these diaries are a capsule in time.

Review

*Note: This is a work of historical fiction. The author includes a note to readers about the making of this book, which did come about from an actual historical event, but has fictionalized what follows and fictionalized the actions of characters, some of which were actual historical figures of the time.

But even old money…and the equally unparalleled ability of the rich to keep dark secrets, could not completely obscure the whispered rumors that trickled down through the generations that May Dodd had actually died under somewhat mysterious circumstances…

This novel centers around the historical event of a peace conference in 1854, held at Ft. Laramie. A Cheyenne chief, Little Wolf, requests one thousand white women to be brides for his Cheyenne warriors, as their society is matrimonial. Children would belong to their mothers’ society – white man society. This was asked in hopes of assimilating the Cheyenne people, uniting two races, and creating peace. Of course, this request was met with a resounding no, and no white women ever were given to the Cheyennes as brides. However, Jim Fergus has written this novel and changed history: in his novel, the United States government sends the white women to marry into the Cheyenne tribes.

Among the wealthy, ancestral insanity has always been a source of deep-rooted embarrassment.

The novel begins with an introduction by Will Dodd, the great-grandson of May Dodd. He wonders what truly became of his great-grandmother, as his is a family of considerable money, high in the ranks of society and there is a rumored family legend that she ran off to live with Indians. Secrets are kept close to the bosom about May Dodd, the black mark in the Dodd family.

He finds a letter written from May to her two children, Hortense and William, and sets about on a journey to discover more than the mere footnote in “the heavily edited family history” in which May Dodd is mentioned in the scarcest of manners:

Born March 20, 1850…second daughter of J. Hamilton and Hortense Dodd. Hospitalized at age 23 for a nervous disorder. Died in hospital, February 17, 1876.

The rumors of May’s life fuel young Will’s yearning for true discovery of his ancestor, especially after his father wastes away the rest of the family fortune and his brother does not return from Vietnam. Will puts his college degree to good use, becoming the editor in chief of a local magazine, and stumbles upon May’s name in researching information for an article. It sparks an interest in him, and he delves deeper into his family’s archives, where he discovers May’s letter to her children. This leads Will to a reservation, where he discovers May has left several journals that have been kept safe.

The novel is broken into notebooks, serving the purpose of various points of reference and time, distinguishing significant changes in May Dodd’s life. From this point it opens up into May’s journals, with each entry meticulously dated.  In total, there are seven notebooks.Indeed, there are even some letters contained within her first few notebooks – letters to her sister, also named Hortense, and letters to the father of her two children.

May explains how she landed in an asylum – placed there at the hands of her own family. Hers is a wretched life, but then one day something odd happens: two strangers come to the institution. They are seeking volunteers to lend themselves to the U.S. government as brides for the Indians, in a back-door, hush-hush operation. Who would want to admit to the public that he’d authorized – and set in motion – for white women to be sent to breed with the savages? That would be quite scandalous, indeed.

This is an incentive for May. She could very well be free of the place! And that is just what she sets out to do, and she achieves it.

It is made clear to readers that May Dodd comes from a prominent Chicago family, who mercilessly turn their backs upon her. I find it quite ingenious that she one-ups them at their own game, little unbeknownst to them, until much, much later. She is determined to take full advantage of her newly freed soul.

Along the way, she meets other women who travel with her and will also marry. Hers is a mixed bag of women: a woman who worked at the asylum she was imprisoned within, a mulatto runaway slave, a large, brawny Swiss, a racist Southern belle, an Englishwoman author and artiste of bird life, a widow in mourning, a young girl from the asylum (believed to be the director of the asylum’s offspring), mischievous twin Irish sisters and a holier-than-thou evangelical Episcopalian.

It seems that May Dodd and I are kindred spirits: [in a letter to her sister about her Episcopalian companion]

I’m afraid that Miss White and I have taken an instant dislike to one another, and I fear that we are destined to become bitter enemies. She is enormously tiresome and bores us all witless with her sanctimonious attitudes and evangelical rantings. As you well know, Hortense, I have never had much interest in the church. Perhaps the hypocrisy inherent in Father’s position as a church elder, while remaining one of the least Christ-like men I’ve ever known, has something to do with my general cynicism toward organized religion of all kinds. 

Indeed, I do not hold stock in organized religion of any sort, after many years of seeing the selfish and unkind actions of congregations of several different denominations. In this sense, I felt a strong sense of ties to May Dodd. In addition, the satirical way the she relates her tale through her letters and her journal entries is also endearing, and it is quickly quite clear that an asylum was not in any way a need for May Dodd.

I got a bigger battery than you. 

Despite May Dodd’s privileged upbringing, she is not disillusioned into what her mission is: copulate with the Cheyenne population. She is on a secret mission (although not very secret at all of the stops along the way, it seems) to teach the Cheyennes how to live after the buffalo have gone. It is a tall order, and one that the Cheyennes do not really care for, although that is exactly what they asked for in their request.

They get a small number of wives, sent in the first shipment, and through a series of events it becomes clear that’s all they are going to get. Indeed, it seems the U.S. government has gotten itself into some hot water in hasty decisions, and must save face to the public…and in doing so is turning its collective back on the white women it sent into the wilds to live with the barbarians.

Along the way, May and her cohorts are under the direction of one Captain John Bourke. He is an actual historical figure, who served with General Crook, known to the Indians as “Three Stars.” Fergus has fictionalized Bourke in this sense, except for an excerpt at the beginning of a notebook, who grows fond of May on their short journey where he finally delivers May to Little Wolf’s tribe, but not before the two encounter one night of passion. May has been selected to be the bride of Little Wolf, the chief of one tribe on the Cheyenne.

What we risk creating when we tamper with God’s natural separation of the races will not be one harmonious people, but a people dispossessed, adrift, a generation without identity or purpose, neither fish nor fowl, Indian nor Caucasian.

This novel does carry religious, political and serious moral undertones, and Miss White’s introduction is just the beginning of this. It is continued through the Reverend Hare, who leaves the tribe in a very unsatisfactory way, grievously offending the sensibilities of the church. That being said, Fergus does not nobilize the Native American, but clearly paints the picture of prejudices of the time – prejudices that ran deep. These hatreds are realized through May’s writings, through her perspective, which I believe to be mostly unbiased (except for one conversation near the end of the novel with Phemie, the runaway slave); she clearly details the hatreds of the civilized white man, and those of the Indians as well. Neither is left morally unscathed in May’s accounts, but the white man is found to be seriously lacking, particularly in this passage:

According to Captain Bourke…the only true hope for the advancement of the savage is to teach him that he must give up this allegiance to the tribe and look towards his own individual welfare. This is necessary, Bourke claims, in order that he may function effectively in the ‘individualized civilization’ of the Caucasian world. To the Cheyenne such a concept remains completely foreign–the needs of the People, the tribe, and above all the family within the tribe are placed always before those of the individual. In this regard they live somewhat like the ancient clans of Scotland. The selflessness of my husband, Little Wolf, for instance, strikes me as most noble and something that hardly requires ‘correction’ by civilized society.  In support of his own thesis, the Captain uses the unfortunate example of the Indians who have been pressed into service as scouts for the U.S. Army. These men are rewarded for their efforts as good law-abiding citizens–paid wages, fed, clothed, and generally cared for. The only requirement of their employment, their allegiance to the white father, is that they betray their own people and their own families…I fail to see the nobility or the advantage of such individualized private initiative…

In many cases our lives were more difficult for being of mixed blood, for we were considered neither black nor white, and resented by both. 

One thing that I do not believe May ever realized is that a half-breed, like the ones the women encounter on the edges of the forts, do not have a foot in either world, are not a part of either race. In this time, if you were of a mixed race – no matter what makeup they may be – you were essentially an outcast, as the above quote (from Phemie) states. May strongly believes in her mission, until Captain Bourke, unable to relinquish his tie to May, provides some unsettling details. Her new-found life is shaken to the core.

There is no power in a baby’s hand. 

In reading this book, I had no idea what journey Fergus was taking me on as a reader, where May Dodd would eventually end up. I was left on this precipice, trying to form predictions over halfway through the book, to no avail. All things eventually begin leading in one direction, with May pushing and encouraging the direction of Little Wolf’s band of Cheyenne people, but with resistance from him until their child is born. Their daughter is unique, and Little Wolf interprets her as the Cheyenne baby Jesus, sent to save their people, but the May Dodd – and all of the other white women – know otherwise.

Fergus wraps his story up with young Will Dodd finally reaching his reservation destination, speaking with other descendants of May Dodd, and a final chapter of her life is revealed through a young monk’s final chapter in her last notebook.

The ending of this novel caught me entirely off guard, as I was unsure how it would wrap up. I am a sentimental person, and as such I can sometimes become agitated with an author’s lack of attentiveness  to what I consider a proper ending. (I know, it’s a personal thing. I’m working on it.) However, I was highly intrigued as well because I am a Cheyenne descendant, and I wanted to know how Fergus would wrap up this fictionalized tale of the Cheyenne and May Dodd’s part in it all. I was pleasantly surprised, and my sentimental side was appeased with his gentle ending, despite my broken heart.

Little Wolf and Dull Knife

I do commend Fergus for his amazing representation of May Dodd’s character. He has created her with a witty and sharp mind, and it is easy to forget when reading that this novel was written by a man, so well has Fergus created Dodd’s character.

I highly recommend this read to any and all, especially if you are not well-versed in Native American history, specifically in terms of interactions with the United States government. Given my heritage, and general fascination with this time period, I am fairly well-versed in Native American culture and history, and nothing in this novel was out of place. Fergus is honest and clear in his representation of the government (and stronghold military) and its dealings with the Native Americans, and it is starkly seen in this novel.

In addition, in the back of the novel is a reading group component comprised of three sections: a further note from Jim Fergus, a detailed interview with him, and very critical questions for book clubs. This content is usually ignored in general, I feel, but this short inclusion is well worth the few pages it’s typed on. Fergus has also included a bibliography of his research that helped him provide accurate details portrayed in the novel.

About the Author

Jim Fergus was born in Chicago of a French mother and an American father. He attended high school in Massachusetts and graduated as an English major from Colorado College in 1971. He has traveled extensively and lived over the years in Colorado, Florida, the French West Indies, Idaho, France, and Arizona. For ten years he worked as a teaching tennis professional in Colorado and Florida, and in 1980 moved to the tiny town of Rand, Colorado (pop. 13), to begin his career as a full-time freelance writer. He was a contributing editor of Rocky Mountain Magazine, as well as a correspondent of Outside magazine. During the next two decades Fergus published hundreds of articles, essays, interviews and profiles in a wide variety of regional and national magazines and newspapers. His first book, a travel/sporting memoir titled, A HUNTER’S ROAD, was published by Henry Holt in 1992.

jim_fergus

Fergus’s first novel, ONE THOUSAND WHITE WOMEN: The Journals of May Dodd was published by St. Martin’s Press in 1998. The novel won the 1999 Fiction of the Year Award from the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association. A favorite selection of reading groups across the country, ONE THOUSAND WHITE WOMEN has since sold over 700,000 copies in the United States. The French translation – MILLE FEMMES BLANCHES – won the “Best First Foreign Novel” award, was on the bestseller list in France for 57 weeks, and has sold over 400,000 copies in that country.

In 1999, Jim Fergus published a collection of his outdoor articles and essays, titled THE SPORTING ROAD. In the spring of 2005, his second novel, THE WILD GIRL: The Notebooks of Ned Giles was published by Hyperion Press. An historical fiction set in the 1930′s in Chicago, Arizona, and the Sierra Madre of Mexico, THE WILD GIRL has also been embraced by reading groups and book clubs. Winston Groom, author of FOREST GUMP called it, “an exhilarating and suspenseful tale that makes the heart soar.”

In 2011, Fergus published a family historical fiction in France entitled,MARIE-BLANCHE. The novel spans the entire 20th century, and tells the devastating tale of the complicated and ultimately fatal relationship between the author’s French mother and grandmother.  The American edition of MARIE-BLANCHE will be published in the United States in 2014.

In the spring of 2013, Fergus published another novel in France, CHRYSISPortrait d’Amour, a love story set in 1920′s Paris and based on the life of a actual woman painter, Chrysis Jungbluth. Reviewing CHRYSIS in French ELLE magazine, Olivia de Lamberterie,wrote: “This novel is an arrow through the heart.”

Chrysis has just been published in America with the title THE MEMORY OF LOVE.

Jim Fergus divides his time between southern Arizona, northern Colorado, and France.

Find the author: Website | Blog | Goodreads

-CA

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