“We curse the U.S. government, we curse the Army, we curse the savagery of mankind, white and Indian alike. We curse God in his heaven. Do not underestimate the power of a mother’s vengeance.” One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus
“It is the mothers, not the warriors, who create a people and guide their destiny.” Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Lakota Chief (December 1868 – February 20, 1939)
Somehow it seems fitting and poignant that, just days after watching the sad, exhausting debacle of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, and having seen the #MeToo movement play out during the last year, I’m writing about Jim Fergus’s historical fiction, One Thousand White Women, first published in 1998. More about the hearing and #MeToo later, but first, the book.
J. Will Dodd, (fictitious) editor of a Chicago magazine, has always been curious about his great grandmother, May Dodd, an ancestral family embarrassment who supposedly died in an insane asylum in 1876. Dodd’s research leads him to a Northern Cheyenne reservation, where he is given access to May’s journals, which tell her story, and the larger story of a group of white women sent on an extraordinary journey.
When she was a young woman, May Dodd left her wealthy family to live, unmarried, with a man beneath her station. They had two children. To get his scandalous embarrassment of a daughter out of the way, May’s father took her children and committed May to an insane asylum, where she met other supposedly mentally unfit women who didn’t conform to contemporary norms deemed appropriate for females.
This part of the story is true: in the 1850s, a Cheyenne chief, recognizing his people would not prevail against their white conquerors, proposed to the US government that his tribe be given one thousand white women to marry in exchange for one thousand horses. The Cheyenne culture was matrilineal, and the chief felt such marriages could be a way to peacefully unite the two cultures. His proposal horrified the US government, and he was turned down.
But the author Jim Fergus concocted a “what if” story. What if one thousand white women had indeed been traded to the Cheyenne?
Fergus set his fictitious story in 1875, the year before Custer’s Last Stand, and so readers mindful of history sense a looming thundercloud of doom. May Dodd gladly exchanges imprisonment in an asylum for marriage to a “savage,” hoping eventually for her freedom and reunification with her children. May is a maverick, markedly unconventional. If you peruse reader reviews on Goodreads, you’ll see that many readers find her character unbelievable for her time.
Another criticism of the novel is the voice of May Dodd. For some readers, she sounds too modern, too irreverent, not at all like a Victorian woman abruptly shipped off to the Wild West to marry a Cheyenne chief:
“Frankly, from the way I have been treated by the so-called ‘civilized’ people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages.”
Some readers of literary fiction don’t generally read popular, trade list fiction, which is how I would categorize this novel. Sometimes the prose can be pedestrian and clichéd instead of fresh and nuanced, and the story can be more plot-driven while the characters may not be especially well rounded or complex.
I did find this to be the case with One Thousand White Women at first, but ultimately I was captured by the author’s compelling premise. Deeper into the story, I began to wonder about May Dodd. While at first she seemed unrealistic, maybe that’s because unconventional or transgressive females of her time haven’t been written about. May’s thoughts and words didn’t always ring true to me. But eventually, an unusual and arresting narrative unfolded, overshadowing any writing deficits.
Jim Fergus has lived in the West most of his life. He knows it well, he is an accomplished historical researcher and, as far as I can tell, he is intimately familiar with and has a deep respect for Native American culture. Astonishingly to me, May Dodd and her female companions assimilate into Cheyenne culture within a matter of months.
I questioned this. Surely, women wouldn’t have acted that way. Would white Christian women so quickly embrace a culture so different? Would they stomach polygamy? Paganism? Frigid South Dakota winters living in teepees? Would May Dodd really become friends with her Cheyenne husband’s other wives and grow to love Chief Little Wolf? One Thousand White Women explores and shatters cultural “rules” of race, marriage, religion, and gender in a way that resonates with our contemporary times.
“It must have been a dream, for my husband was now in the tent with me, he was still dancing softly, noiselessly, his moccasined feet rising and falling gracefully, soundlessly, he spun softly around the fire, shaking his gourd rattle, which made no sound, danced like a spirit being around me where I lay sleeping. I began to become aroused, felt a tingling in my stomach, an erotic tickle between my thighs, the immutable pull of desire as he displayed to me.”
Fergus’s evocative depiction of Cheyenne culture and bone-deep spiritual connection to nature, a connection May Dodd and the other women readily embrace, is remarkable. A series of entrancing scenes depict May’s new life: She rises at dawn on a silent morning after a snowfall and walks to the frozen pond for her daily immersion; she relishes her Cheyenne family listening to stories and playing games around a fire in their tent on a dark winter evening. Cast out by her white family, May is welcomed by her Cheyenne family.
“How strange to recall that six months ago we departed Fort Laramie as anxious white women entering the wilderness for the first time; and now, perhaps equally anxious, we leave as squaws returning home. I realized anew as we rode into the cold wind on this morning that my own commitment had been sealed forever by the heart that beats in my belly, that I could not have remained even if I so wished.”
May and the other women and the Cheyenne know that come spring all remaining Native Americans on the frontier must turn themselves in to the US government. They will be moved to reservations, forced to give up their freedom and way of life forever.
An American tragedy plays out in the final pages.
Here are the words of John G. Bourke, a soldier who actually lived during that time and who has a major part in One Thousand White Women. This quote is not from the novel, but from John’s memoir, which was published in 1891:
“The youngster wrapped his blanket about him and stood like a statue of bronze, waiting for the fatal bullet. The American Indian knows how to die with as much stoicism as the East Indian. I leveled my pistol…” John G. Bourke, On the Border with Crook
I was thinking about May’s commitment to an insane asylum for her transgressions of having children outside of marriage with a man of no wealth. I’ve been working on a memoir about my mother, who was in a psychiatric hospital for a short time. Yes, she had a serious mental illness, but I’ve come to realize as I’ve worked on several drafts that some of her “symptoms” were normal, understandable reactions to sexism and misogyny, and prejudice against women likely contributed to her illness.
When I watched the confounding Kavanaugh hearing – another American tragedy – Dr. Blasey telling her story to all those male senators and the world, Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsay Graham ranting, the women who had been sexually assaulted confronting Jeff Flake in the elevator – I thought about how dangerous it was to be a woman in 1875 and 1982, and how dangerous it is still in 2018.
One Thousand White Women was originally published in 1998 and has been popular with book clubs. Have you read it by any chance, and what did you think? Where do you think women stand now in light of #MeToo?