publication date: 1998
Here’s another book brought to my attention by the “Request-a-Review” feature. One Thousand White Women was a novel of historical fiction, which chronicled the journey of May Dodd and her life with the Cheyenne Indians in 1875. Written largely as May’s journal entries, the book began with May banished to a mental institution for creating a family with a man out of wedlock. While there, she was discovered by a government doctor, who promised her freedom from the institution if she took part in the United States’ secretive, new “Brides for Indians” program. As a member of the program of one thousand white women, May would be an ambassador of the United States living within the Cheyenne Tribe and would be required to marry a Cheyenne husband and bear his children for two years. May agreed to be a member of the program, largely to escape the hellish mental facility.
The plot was based on an event that actually happened, wherein a Cheyenne chief requested one thousand white women to live with the tribe to foster peace between the Cheyenne and the United States. In real life, the request was met with shock, disgust, and a resounding “NO,” but Fergus explored what life would have been like for the women who agreed to the program. Fergus took an inventive idea and crafted a penetrating plot that made the book a worthwhile read.
The plot was engaging, thought-provoking, and well-executed by Fergus, but it isn’t the only satisfying aspect of the book. Fergus used the plot to explore themes such as the relationship between the federal government and the Indian tribes at that time and the role of women in pre-Industrial American society. Fergus discussed Cheyenne society so thoroughly that I keenly felt its absence in contemporary culture. As a small example, here is a great anecdote from the book:
At [May’s Father’s] and Mother’s endless dinner parties [Father] is fond of giving credit to his and his wealthy guests’ great good fortunes by toasting the Sac Chief Black Hawk, who once said that “land cannot be sold. Nothing can be sold but for those things that can be carried away” – a notion that Father found enormously quaint and amusing.
Fergus also excelled at creating a voice for his characters, especially May Dodd. Dodd’s narration encapsulated an 1870s American woman, from the word choice and diction, to her dialogue and values. In fact, because the book was so steeped in May’s voice, there were times I couldn’t separate the author’s views from May’s, as a 19th century woman. This became problematic for me when Dodd’s viewpoint ran counter to my sensibilities. For example, May held condescending feelings for the Cheyenne and American blacks. Her primary description of people of color was “a proud and noble race.” She also fixated on motherhood and thought of motherhood and child-raising as the highest goal for any person or civilization. If Fergus was merely weaving these historical viewpoints into Dodd’s narration, he did a masterful job. I was left wondering, however, if these were some of his values that he worked into the story.
A heinous example of this was Dodd’s recounting of a gathering of Cheyenne where they drank whiskey. It became a complete bacchanal, crowded with rape, assault, and pedophilia. Dodd described it thus:
Throngs of drunk savages, men and women, jostled me as I pushed by. Naked couples copulated on the ground like animals.
Now was this just an urban white woman’s experience, viewed through the lens of her culture, of the Cheyenne drunk on whiskey? Or does Fergus actually believe that a majority of Cheyenne people responded to whiskey in this way? I’m not sure.
Notwithstanding any missteps, the book is an absorbing read.
4/6: worth reading
other reviews (this book is very popular in book clubs, I’m told):