Monday, August 8, 2016

#31 [2016/CBR8] "One Thousand White Women" by Jim Fergus

I'm not too sure what to write about One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd (1998) by Jim Fergus. It was another book club book. So even though I'd seen it on the bookshelves at Target and was intrigued, I probably wouldn't have read it on my own. On the whole, I liked it. It kept my interest and had a lot of fascinating historical detail. Most of my book club was just frustrated that it wasn't a true story. For my part, I was able to accept that there was no way this could have happened and then just let myself enjoy the story. After all, isn't that what fiction is all about: the ability to explore the impossible? In this case, you have to allow that the U.S. government would volunteer one thousand white women up as brides as part of a treaty with the Cheyenne Indians. Fergus imagined what would have happened and then wrote it down.

Apparently Fergus had seen in his research that at some point in treaty negotiations with the U.S. government, a Cheyenne Chief asked for 1,000 white women. At the time,things were not looking good for his tribe. As a matrilineal society, the chief's hope was that the white women would help his tribe assimilate into the culture that was quickly dominating the continent. In reality, this request was never taken seriously and certainly never fulfilled. There is no way the government would actively send white women off to "breed" with the Indians in 1875. It seems that racism often centers around an obsession with keeping women "safe" and "pure". The country was riddled with anti-miscegenation laws (that lasted for a disturbingly long time after this period). But Fergus sets up a world where President Grant, in an effort to encourage peace, sets up a secret "Brides for Indians" program.

Fergus does a pretty good job of setting up the reality of this situation. The government didn't wander around society parties looking for wealthy, connected women. They started in prisons and mental institutions. And that's where they found our protagonist, May Dodd. May Dodd was a strong, independent, passionate woman. She was born in high society. She defied her family by running away with a man she loved and having two kids with him. They responded by kidnapping her, taking her children, and putting her in a mental institution. The mental institution was a place of horrors. Desperate to get away, May would have agreed to almost anything. And so she found herself on a train with the first group of approximately forty women sent out West.

The story is told through May Dodd's letters and journal entries. She is smart, open-minded, adventurous, and practical, and I enjoyed reading the story from her perspective. She quickly becomes something of a leader of their group of women. Her ultimate goal is to gain her freedom and get back to her children, but she's willing to make a good faith attempt at the arranged marriage. On their long journey, they stop at a fort where May Dodd meets Captain John Bourque. They fall in love, but they are both promised to others. May Dodd continues on to meet the Cheyenne and ends up marrying Chief Little Wolf. May goes into great detail about her life with the Cheyenne, and how she is viewed when she goes back to the fort as the Chief's wife.

Like I said, on the whole I liked this book. I do not know enough to be too discerning, but from all accounts, Fergus did a lot of research and has included a lot of historical detail. He made this book pretty believable, given its plot. I sometimes had issues with the roles of the other women in the story. Something about them, and it's probably because we don't spend as much time with them, did not feel as authentic. I also sometimes wished I had a little more context or information about the Cheyenne Tribe and their customs. However, since the story was from May's point of view, she simply recorded what she saw. She did not have supplemental information. I am also often wary of books that require a white protagonist to tell the story of a minority group. Why couldn't we just have had a novel about the Cheyenne struggling to survive in 1875? Yet Fergus did a pretty detailed and nuanced job of describing reality for Chief Little Wolf's tribe at the time, so I have a hard time faulting him there. I'd probably give it 3.5 stars.

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