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"One Thousand White Women" by Jim Fergus was a book I picked up on one of my many visits to the library. I found the title intriguing but was a bit put off by the pastel front cover which made it look a bit like a mawkish romance set amongst the American Indians.
However, I thought that the premise sounded interesting, a story about white women going into the Wild West of America in 1875 as part of a government scheme named "Brides for Indians"- which was a measure proposed by the Cheyenne Indians as a way of melding their two cultures.
Now, the blurb explains that this is based on an actual historical event but is told through fictional diaries. I found this a bit ambiguous and wasn't sure what the actual historical event that the book was based on actually was. For a while I was ambling through the book wondering how I had never heard about the American government secretly sending white women out to marry Indians in order to pacify them!
Obviously this is the fictional part and the actual historical event was the proposal that Chief Little Wolf of the Cheyenne tribe made to President Ulysses S. Grant in 1874 - that the American government exchange one thousand white women for one thousand horses in order for the two cultures to begin to understand each other and begin to co-exist peacefully. This scene was played out in the prologue of the book, so maybe I wasn't paying sufficient attention to realise that this was the historical event - even though it was also the title of the book! (I think I was a bit slow on the uptake there!).
So, the story is told through the letters and diary entries of the central character, May Dodd, and follows her adventures with her fellow "Indian Brides" as they travel to their future husbands and their lives within the tribe.
The women involved in the programme have signed up for various reasons - May signs up for the "Indian Brides" programme as a way of escaping her unfair incarceration in a mental asylum. Now, the attitude with which May writes is just not very authentic for a 19th century woman and the behaviour which led to her incarceration is equally ridiculous for a woman of her time and class. May tells us that she has been well brought up in a rich middle-class family in Chicago and has been relegated to the asylum by her family due to what they term her promiscuity.
Fergus has his main character asserting her passionate nature and that she felt no need for marriage even when she bore two children to a man of lower class. He portrays her as independent, wilful and unmindful of society - all of which is very admirable but not very realistic for a rich middle-class girl in 19th century America. May's method of ensuring she is accepted for the programme is equally unrealistic in my opinion. Of course, this book is an alternative history so of course some parts are going to be less realistic but for the main character to be so out of place for her time is a bit much.
However, Fergus does do a good job of describing the mindless horrors and indeed torture of the women deemed insane and left to rot in mental asylums in the 19th century - usually by their own families.
The other "Indian Brides" are portrayed as fleeing jail, loss of money and social standing, no prospects of marriage and there is even an ex-slave thrown in for good measure. The characters of the other brides are lively and interesting (although sometimes clichéd) and allow Fergus to show the strata of American society. I did enjoy May's interaction with the other women, particularly once they were immersed in the completely alien Native American way of life.
May has two love interests in the book - the army Captain who escorts the brides to the fort where they will be exchanged and her Indian husband. The romance between May and the Captain is quite cringe worthy and it's all very predictable. May's relationship with her Indian husband, Little Wolf, is more interesting as we are exploring the Cheyenne way of life through their marriage. May of course cannot speak Cheyenne and the ways in which the women learn to communicate with their husbands and the rest of the tribe are quite intriguing.
The character of May is where this book came a bit unstuck for me - the idea is very interesting and the Native American way of life that is described is well researched - but May is a bit trite and not very realistic. This wasn't ideal as she was the narrator of much of the story. The romantic elements were also not particularly well written and just felt a bit embarrassing at times.
I did enjoy this book for the insight into the way the Cheyenne people lived and the horrific way in which the white Americans exploited and then annihilated the Native American way of life. This is a subject that I've found an increasing interest in and I did enjoy the more historical parts of the book for this reason. Fergus does try to balance the book by showing the atrocities that the Cheyennes themselves are willing to commit against other tribes.
Overall I did enjoy this book and kept reading to find out what would happen to May and her fellow brides, already knowing, of course, how disastrously it all turned out for the Native Americans in the end. It has encouraged me to look into the history of that era as it was well researched in that respect.
I would recommend this as a good read but only if May's strange out-of-place character won't annoy you and you are prepared for the romance element.
This review is also posted on Ciao.co.uk under my username.
When browsing the shelves of my local friendly charity book shop, this book leapt out at me, mainly as I was intrigued by the title "One Thousand White Women" - I couldn't imagine what it could be about.
It turned out that this work of fiction, loosely based on an actual historical event in North America in the 1850's, turned out to be about a Cheyenne chief requesting 1000 white brides to be given to his people in the interests of peace and learning from each other - a kind of multiculturalism initiative ahead of its time.
In reality as well in the eyes of "Little Wolf" the 50-something fictional chief in this story, Native Americans believe that society is matrilineal, all children born belong to their mother's tribe, so the logic of these people seen as "savages" makes sense. History tells us that the 1000 white women really requested in a peace conference in 1854 by an actual Northern Cheyenne chief did not appear, shocked as the white authorities were by the request and the peace conference collapsed. In this fictional book the author has imagined what would have happened if some women had, in fact, been prepared to make that journey, and is told through the eyes of his main character one May Dodd.
From the start I was drawn in by this story and interested in seeing what it would be like for women off to a different world - in that time it really would have been going into the unknown. The author initially manages to draw up a believable cast of women who would have wanted to marry into the society, for a fixed period of 2 years. From May who has been locked up in a mental asylum due to marrying and bearing two children to someone below her class status, to an ex-slave Phemie, Gretchen a Swiss larger than life but not classically beautiful woman, and Daisy, a ditched and disgraced bride, these women do seem believable at the start. The raggle-taggle group made of prostitutes, criminals and asylum dwellers make for an interesting mix.
I did find their journey and some of the characters May encountered along the way compelling, though the way the story was told through May writing letters to the children she had been forced to leave behind as she was incarcerated did start to grate at times. There were areas where Jim Fergus, the author, seemed to feel more comfortable; I imagine the historical research of the Cheyenne way of life was thorough. In other places I felt he struggled more - the secondary love interest, Captain Bourne, a soldier who was given the task of accompanying the women made for some cringeworthy love and sex scenes.
More annoyingly at times the women just did not convince at all - they seemed to shrug off rape and other random acts of violence, as well as polygamy with ease and a remarkable amount of amnesia. Maybe the suggestion was that they were strong but to me this rang of the author trying to write about women and their emotions in a very male way. It also made some of the characters seem very one dimensional.
I wanted to know what would happen in this book, and this kept me reading, along with a genuine interest in the Cheyenne way of life as portayed in this book. In the main the prose was well written and engaging, but at times the story and the dialogue felt a little contrived. For a start May Dodd the heroine seemed rather too rebellious to be a convincing 19th century heroine, more a child of the 1970's, and I struggled with this, much as I liked the idea of the women proving to be stronger than they seemed.
I liked the idea of the women embracing the culture à la "Lord of the Flies", as they came to understand that the Native Americans were not the savages they were displayed they also started to abandon their former trappings and preconceptions, and again this made for interesting reading.
I did find myself wondering at one point how Victoria Hislop would have covered this story - I suppose having read "The Return" and "The Island" recently this unusual premise for a story seemed her kind of theme; I did think that a woman's perspective might have helped, with all due respect to Jim Fergus I think portraying women in this interesting but strange fictional situation was no easy task.
Overall I did enjoy this book, and I am glad I read it as it made me think, and also made me want to find out more about this period of time in American History. Certainly this period where the West was fought over for its Gold and natural resources is a fascinating one and one that I believe the author has covered in other books. I would definitely read one of the author's other books for interest's sake, despite my slight frustration with the way this was written, i.e. the journal and letter form, and also the less convincing elements of this work.
This book is worth a read for the story it tells, despite my difficulties with some elements of it I would still recommend it. It is currently available from Amazon at £5.49, details below.
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Pan Books (4 May 2007)
Product Dimensions: 19.3 x 13 x 3.3 cm