Friday, February 26, 2016

Book Review: One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus

Years ago my book club read this book, but I was out of town for the meeting so I skipped it. It is probably the only book I skipped for book club that I tracked down later to read, mostly due to other members talking about it afterward (and obviously they were talking about it at meetings where it wasn't the discussion book since I missed that meeting.)

It is a pretty fascinating concept: a Cheyenne leader asked President Grant if Grant would give the Cheyenne 1000 white women (in exchange for 1000 horses), and because their tribe is matrilineal, those children would be considered white, hence bringing the Cheyenne into the white world. That part of the story is true. But in real life, Grant said no. In this novel, he said yes. And May Dodd, our narrator, is one of those women.

The book is written as a found series of journals with accompanying notes from the descendant who found them and also a short narration from another character involved (but all of the book is 100% fiction, although the author says it's amazing how many people believe it is true.) May has been locked up in an insane asylum by her family, for the crazyness of being "promiscuous." In fact, she doesn't believe in marriage (that's what is really crazy in the 1870s) and instead has had two children by her live-in boyfriend. Happens all the time nowadays without anyone batting an eye, but 145 years ago, it was insanity. Because Grant wants these women to go voluntarily to the Cheyenne, they have a hard time drumming them up, and so they go to prisons and asylums (with caveats, the women have to be deemed acceptable by doctors and other inspectors first). May wants desperately to be free, hoping that one day she'll be able to return to her children. But she gets completely on board with the project and goes into it with an ope and enthusiastic mind, ready to be the wife of a Cheyenne, have children with him, and be a part of that culture. This book covers the first year of the experiment.

As one could expect, many of the participants volunteered for reasons less than simply for the good of the country, and in fact, the ones running away from their lives are the ones with the most vested interest in making their new lives work out, so funnily enough, the ones with bad pasts work out well, as opposed to the one who wanted to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. There is an artists, a fallen Southern Belle, a former escaped slave, con artists from prison, and various women who felt that they weren't attractive or appealing enough to find a husband in the traditional manner and to whom being a wife and mother is paramount. I particularly liked the tough Austrian woman (not German!) who acknowledged her lack of beauty but more than made up for it with her work ethic. It was funny how many of the women's spouses seemed like not who they would have chosen (the Austrian's husband was very lazy) but still perhaps were husbands who would be a good counter-balance to them. May's husband turns out to be the Sweet Medicine Chief. Which means their child will be very important in the Cheyenne society.

The book is very exciting with a lot of twists and turns, even though you might think that not much would happen on the open prairies. But there are raids and wars, there are the white American soldiers who are not fans of the plan, there is the fat minister with them who might not be what he seems, and there are all the various women and their reasons for coming, their difficulties with adjusting, and their pregnancies. The style works very well for the story as we're completely in May's mind in her journals, although she does understand she is writing them hopefully for her children, so she does explain a lot of things that she might not otherwise explain. The author clearly has done extensive research and the voice rings true. May is a compelling main character, as she manages to be both stubborn and outspoken, and yet also open and accepting. If you like strong female characters, the American West, stories about Native Americans, or even just exciting tales of discovery and adventure, this book has it all. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

I bought this book at a used bookstore.

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