One Thousand White Women

One Thousand“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 serous 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?

 

The memoir I didn’t want to write about

YouDon'tHavetoSay“My name is Sherman Alexie and I was born from loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss.

And loss.”  

 – Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

I was all set to write about Sherman Alexie’s newly published memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, when I found out he has joined the ranks of those accused in the #MeToo movement.

I’d read a short while ago that children’s and young adult book publishing is the latest industry rocked by scandal, as women in publishing have come forward to tell of sexual assault and harassment by book editors, publishers, agents, and lauded authors who wield tremendous power in the literary world. Authors such as Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up in abject poverty on a reservation and who won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 for his best-selling novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

I was especially interested in this because I began my career in New York City, back in the day, in educational publishing for children and young adults. I experienced uncomfortable moments with a few men in the course of my work, but nothing like what has been recounted by women in the news recently. Now, looking back, what strikes me most is the pervasive gender inequality in the industry and how clueless I was about the serious sexual harassment and assault taking place in the workplace. (Granted, I worked in educational publishing, which was less glamorous and high stakes.) Women who experienced this were pressured into silence and isolation.

Men held nearly all of the power in book publishing – they were the ones who rose to become executive publishers and celebrated authors – while women, especially those in entry-level positions, were paid salaries difficult to get by on in New York. I don’t recall discussing this much with my female publishing friends and colleagues, except to complain about the low salaries. It was just the way things were.

So here’s a conundrum: In his memoir, Sherman Alexie writes about the rape culture on reservations. Combining prose and poetry, he writes beautifully and comically about his ambivalent relationship with his difficult, flawed, and heroic mother, Lillian, who was born of a rape and who was raped herself and subsequently gave birth to his half-sister, who later died in a house fire.

He writes of the Native American women in his personal life with ambivalence – he and his siblings were loved, protected (sometimes) and psychologically harmed by Lillian. But he writes of Native American women as a group with great empathy because of what they have endured on the reservation and in American culture. Sherman Alexie, in interviews, public appearances, and writing classes, mentors and encourages young writers, particularly Native American writers and women, to step up and take their rightful place in the world.

Yet now Sherman Alexie stands accused of inappropriate sexual overtures. He stands accused of appearing to encourage and value the writing of many a young woman, including Native American women, and of ultimately using his celebrity as a ruse to try and have sex with them. In addition to sexual harassment or abuse, he may be responsible for silencing, or at least shaking the confidence of, talented women writers. He has denied some of the allegations, while acknowledging that he has hurt people with his behavior.

On learning of this, my view of Sherman Alexie as a memoirist and as a human being has of course changed, and my thoughts about his work are complicated in ways I haven’t sorted out.

I would like to see Alexie’s career as a mentor and teacher curtailed, but I don’t think this means Alexie’s memoir should not be read.  Just as we shouldn’t remove from circulation the movies of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, or cleanse our museums of Picasso’s paintings, or let the work of J.D. Salinger go out of print.

Maybe we need to critically view their work in a different light if we are to have any hope of making sense of this mess.

Here’s an excerpt from Sherman Alexie’s memoir:

“If some evil scientist had wanted to create a place where rape would become a primary element of a culture, then he would have built something very much like an Indian reservation. That scientist would have put sociopathic and capitalistic politicians, priests, and soldiers in absolute control of a dispossessed people – of a people stripped of their language, art, religion, history, land, and economy. And then, after decades of horrific physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual torture, that scientist would have removed those torturing politicians, priests, and soldiers, and watched as an epically wounded people tried to rebuild their dignity. And, finally, that scientist would have taken notes as some of those wounded people turned their rage on other wounded people.

My family did not escape that mad scientist’s experiment.”

Maybe part of the solution is to work toward a culture of greater compassion. To not turn away or remain silent if a person or a group is being harmed. Because they, in turn, may harm others.

“In 1938, five years after construction began on the Grand Coulee Dam, a wild salmon made its way to the face of that monolith and could not pass. That was the last wild salmon that attempted to find a way around, over, or through the dam into the upper Columbia and Spokane rivers. That was the last wild salmon that remembered.

The Interior Salish, my people, had worshipped the wild salmon since our beginnings. That sacred fish had been our primary source of physical and spiritual sustenance for thousands of years.

My mother and father were members of the first generation of Interior Salish people who lived entirely without wild salmon.

My mother and father, without wild salmon, were spiritual orphans.”

Can you separate the work from the artist or writer? Or are the two intertwined and to be viewed as such? Have you read Sherman Alexie’s memoir or any of his many novels and poems?

 

 

News of the World

news-of-the-world“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”  – Paulette Jiles, News of the World

I took a break to work on my memoir, and here I am again, with a series of posts to highlight books that I think will make great holiday giving and that speak in some way to our fraught post-election times.

Despite a few setbacks – an unexpected election outcome and the death of a beloved aunt – I managed to finish the memoir draft, though I still have to edit and trim the last fifty pages or so.

Then it’s on to the next draft, with more editing and cutting. The manuscript is 132,922 words. Somehow, I have to get it down to 90,000 words or so. Actually, I don’t find cutting that difficult, it’s the honing and rewriting that seem to never end.

Ann Lamott is famous for saying you have to be willing to write a “shitty first draft.” I think you have to be willing to write shitty second, third, and maybe fourth drafts, too.

I don’t know how many drafts Paulette Jiles wrote of News of the World, but if you are looking for a beautiful, deeply affecting work of fiction to give as a holiday gift or to add to your wish list, this is the perfect novel.

At about 200 pages, it is a gem I will definitely read again. I got my copy out of the library, but I wouldn’t mind adding the novel to my book collection. This was my introduction to Paulette Jiles, who is an exquisite writer.

It’s not often I’m so affected by a story. I immediately fell in love with Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a widower based on an actual historical figure, and the complicated character of Johanna Leonberger who, for the second time in her short life, is thrust out of one culture and into another.

The premise is based on a sad but true phenomenon: Virtually every Anglo, German-American, and Mexican child kidnapped by Native Americans did not want to return to their original families and cultures, not even those who were kept by Native Americans for a relatively short time.  When they were forced to return, almost all had great difficulty adjusting, and they forever felt like outsiders. Many tried to run away and return to their Native American families. Some starved themselves to death.

In News of the World, Captain Kidd has lived through three wars, fought in two of them, and makes an itinerate living reading newspapers from around the world for ten cents a ticket in the isolated towns of north Texas.

In exchange for a $50-dollar gold piece, Captain Kidd agrees to deliver unwilling ten-year-old Johanna back to her relatives. She had been four years with the Kiowa, who kidnapped her and killed her parents and little sister. Now she has been traded back by the Kiowa to the US Army, in exchange for blankets and a set of silver dinnerware.

Fully assimilated into the Kiowa culture, Johanna has forgotten virtually everything about her former life with her birth family. She does not want to return to the “civilized” world.

News of the World is about Jefferson and Johanna’s dangerous 400-mile journey from Wichita Falls to San Antonio, Texas in 1870 in a hostile, post Civil War landscape, and the relationship that develops between this elderly widower and the young girl.

“Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

Along the way, Captain Kidd reads his newspapers to the town folk. In this post-war time, passions are still running high, and there is much bitterness, division, and conflict in everyday life. Does that sound familiar? But for a time, the townspeople are lifted out of their own locality by news of the world.

“He began to read to his audiences of far places and strange climates. Of the Esquimaux in their seal furs, the explorations of Sir John Franklin, shipwrecks on deserted isles, the long-limbed folk of the Australian outback who were dark as mahogany and yet had blonde hair and made strange music which the writer said was indescribable and which Captain Kidd longed to hear.

He read of the discovery of Victoria Falls and sightings, real or not, of the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman and an eyewitness account of a man on the bridge of that ship sending messages by blinking light to them, asking about people long dead. And before these tales for a short time Texans quieted and bent forward to hear.”

Jiles deftly portrays the nuances of characterization and psychological motivation in riveting scenes between Johanna and Captain Kidd that build to a powerful climax. Of Johanna Leonberger she writes:

“She never learned to value those things that white people valued. The greatest pride of the Kiowa was to do without, to make use of anything at hand; they were almost vain of their ability to go without water, food, and shelter. Life was not safe and nothing could make it so, neither fashionable dresses nor bank accounts. The baseline of human life was courage.”

News of the World was nominated for the National Book Award.

Have you read News of the World? Are there novels that you are dying to press into the hands of your reader friends this holiday season?

To the Bright Edge of the World

To the Bright Edge

Lieut. Col. Allen Forrester, June 25, 1885:

“Pruitt keeps shouting above the storm–Do you feel that? Can’t you feel that?

What he says makes no sense. He says there are hands on him. Something pulls at him. He says he has to run. I have warned him to stay put.

(undated entry)

My dearest Sophie. I pray you will read this. You are first and last to me.

I do not know if we will survive the night. They are all around us. They scream and cry so that it is hard to think to put these words on the page.

You must know that I love you.

I am not afraid of death but instead of the passage from here to oblivion, of being aware of its coming. I would rather have been run through with a spear than face this long dread.”

Eowyn Ivey’s novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, is truly a standout for me, a cut above the rest.

Many of you know that I’m partial to nature and wilderness stories, especially historical ones. To the Bright Edge of the World reminds me of one of my all-time favorite novels, Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett. The novel and short stories of Anthony Doerr come to mind as well when I read Eowyn Ivey’s writing, which is lyrical and replete with exquisite detail. A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter is another fine book, a memoir, in the same vein.

“I fell in love with this book; it captured both my head and my heart, completely and utterly.” – Jane, Beyond Eden Rock.  — I was browsing on Goodreads and found Jane’s endorsement of To the Bright Edge of the World. Her words spoke to me because they are my sentiments about the novel, too, and I couldn’t have said it better.

I loved Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, which was selected for If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book in 2014. Like The Snow Child, To the Bright Edge of the World takes place in Ivey’s native Alaska. It’s a great love story, a  wilderness tale of a hero and heroine’s quests infused with magical realism, and a flawlessly researched portrayal of 19th century Alaska.

Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester must lead a dangerous, seemingly impossible expedition through the fictitious Wolverine River Valley deep in the Alaskan wilds of 1885, a journey no one has ever survived. His pregnant wife, Sophie Forrester, stays behind in Vancouver Barracks, destined to have adventures and heartbreaks of her own.

Ivey has cleverly constructed the narrative entirely from letters, journals, diaries, newspaper articles, military reports, photographs, and other documents.

We, the readers, are privy to the contemporary correspondence between Walter Forrester, Allen Forrester’s great nephew, and Joshua Sloan, who is part Native American and curator of the Alpine Historical Museum in Alaska. Walter sends his great uncle’s papers to Joshua in the hopes that he’ll display and archive them for safekeeping. As Joshua makes his way through the journals, diaries, and letters, he and Walter piece together Allen and Sophie’s stories, fill in the gaps, and reflect on their own lives.

As always, Ivey’s descriptions of geography and landscape take us vividly to long-ago Alaska:

“The canyon bound the Wolverine so that when, over the course of the winter, the ice moved, it crumpled violently. Great blocks three feet thick & as much as twenty feet high had been torn asunder & turned sideways. It seemed an impassable range of buckles & ridges & upended slabs of ice pressed up against the canyon walls, which are vertical rock the color of lead.”

Here are Sophie’s words as she undergoes her own dark night of the soul:

Sophie Forrester, Vancouver Barracks, April 26, 1885:

“…it continued its steady and hard rapping, and the sound became more and more horrible…The raven stopped its knocking and cocked an eye toward me.

I then noticed something most peculiar….A bird’s eye ought to be flattened in shape, with a dark iris surrounded by a dark-gray sclera, and entirely unmoving in its socket. Yet this eye was round, with white sclera, and it rotated about in the socket. It looked nothing like a bird’s eye, but rather that of a mammal. More to the point, a human.” 

 

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A raven shape shifts into a trickster who brings Allen and Sophie good fortune and sorrow.

The New York Public Library. (1849). Raven.

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Sophie Forrester teaches herself the art of photographing birds. Her descriptions of the technical and creative challenges are beautifully rendered, and inspiring.

The New York Public Library. (1901 – 1914).Horned And Tufted Puffins.

 

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Allen Forrester’s darker mission is to assess tribal threats to US expansion in Alaska, even as native tribes give life-saving aid to Forrester and his men. The author weaves Native American myths into the plot. These fierce stories blur the line between humans, animals and nature. In the end, the hard wisdom of the stories so valued by indigenous people seems far truer than the scientific knowledge possessed by “civilized” people.

The New York Public Library. (1869-04). Indian summer encampment.

 

Have you read To the Bright Edge of the World or The Snow Child? What did you think? Can you recommend similar historical books about nature, travel, and adventure, fiction or nonfiction? Click on the comments link in the left sidebar and let us know.

What does Tribe (the book and the noun) have to do with family reunions? I’ll be writing about that in my next post…

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