Saturday, January 21, 2017

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

All historical fiction writers depend on their readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief.  Most readers will tolerate one or two difficult-to-accept situations or coincidental happenings if the writing is good, the characters are well-crafted, and the story engages their emotions.  They will accept a lot if the story provides accurate information about the people and culture of the narrated time period.  With “One Thousand Women” I was not able to be that charitable.
The writing is competent. The characters are imaginatively conceived.  The author integrates informational content about Cheyenne culture in his narration.  I have several quibbles about the narration, but my major objection is that the story too frequently strains believability.
Mr. Fergus took a huge risk in determining the concept of this novel.  In his “Author’s Note” he states: in 1854 at a peace conference at Fort Laramie, a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief requested of the U.S. Army authorities the gift of one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors.  Because theirs is a matrilineal society in which all children born belong to their mother’s tribe, this seemed to the Cheyenne to be the perfect means of assimilation into the white man’s world—a terrifying new world that even as early as 1854, the Native Americans clearly recognized held no place for them.  … the Cheyennes’ request was not well received, the Cheyennes went home, and, of course, the white women did not come.  In this novel they do. 
The author has the Cheyenne chief’s request occur in 1874.  Chief Little Wolf offers one thousand horses for the one thousand white women “to teach us and our children the new life that must be lived when the buffalo are gone.”  President Grant and his advisors see possible practical benefit in accepting Little Wolfe’s offer.  Here might be a peaceful solution to “the still explosive situation on the Great Plains.  … Besides placating the savages with this generous gift of brides, the administration believed that the ‘Noble American woman,’ working in concert with the church, might also exert a positive influence upon the Cheyennes—to educate and elevate them from barbarism to civilized life.”  The consequent “Brides for Indians” program  would “supplement an anticipated shortage of volunteers by recruiting women out of jails, penitentiaries, debtors’ prisons, and mental institutions—offering full pardons or unconditional release, as the case might be, to those who agreed to sign on for the program.”  May Dodd, the novel’s protagonist, committed to a mental institution by her rich parents for living with a man of low economic and social station and for having given birth to two children, accepts the government’s offer.  Her journals of her experiences are the novel’s content.
I could not suspend my disbelief that such an attempt to assimilate such disparate cultures could actually happen.  I did let pass (but not by much) my skepticism that incarcerated women might be willing to become Indian wives in exchange for their release and that wealthy parents might be so cruel as to commit their wayward daughters to mental institutions to gain control of their infant grandchildren.
I plunged into the story hoping that the forthcoming story and the author’s narrative skill would overcome my imitial reservations. They did not.
The novel is 434 pages, too long I thought.  It is told in segments.  The wives do not meet their husbands until more than 100 pages are read.  We must read first May Dodd’s angst about being incarcerated in the mental institution, her separation from her children, her indecision about how complicit her lover was in the relinquishment of her babies, her acquaintanceship with the other future Indian wives, and her budding love affair with Captain Bourke, assigned to command the detachment of soldiers assigned to deliver the women to Chief Little Wolf.  I believe all of this could have been accomplished in half the space. 
Certain passages appealed to me.  I liked this subjective narration about May’s frustration of not knowing what her lover’s role was in her parents' custody-taking of his and her children.
God only knows what has become of you, Harry.  Did they kill you or did they pay you?  Did you die or did  you sell us to the highest bidder?  Should I hate you or should I mourn you?  I can hardly bear to think of you, Harry, without knowing … now I can only dream of someday returning to Chicago, after my mission here is fulfilled, of coming home to be again with my children, of finding you and seeking the truth in your eyes.
I accepted the author’s need to spice up (add additional conflict to) the first 110 pages by creating a love affair between May and the principled Captain Bourke.  Some of the narration, however, seemed florid, too sensuous.
Page 85 – I still stared at the horizon, but I could feel the Captain’s dark eyes on my face, the heat of his arm against mine.  My breath came in shallow draughts as if I could not take sufficient air into my lungs.  “It is late, Captain,” I managed to say.  “Perhaps we should take our stroll another time.”  Where our arms had touched and now parted it was like tearing my own flesh from the bone.
Page 110 – When John Bourke kissed me, I tasted the faint sweetness of whiskey on his lips, and felt his deep moral reluctance giving itself up to my more powerful need for him. I felt us both being swept away together, and I held tight, held on for dear life, as if only the contact of our bodies could fix me in this time and place, as if only when his flesh and mine became seamless, seared together as one, would I be truly anchored to this world, the only world I know.  “Will you show me now, John,” I whispered into his mouth, “dear John, will you show me now,” I implored, “how a civilized man makes love?”
This one-time consummated love affair produces, improbably, May’s entirely white “Cheyenne” child.  The author thereby places in the reader’s mind – in a counterfeit way, I believe -- additional concern about probable disastrous outcomes.
I did like how the white women and May were assimilated rather easily into Little Wolf’s tribe.  Most of the natives were accepting and the white women were surprisingly adaptive.  All the white women were expected to learn their gender-determined domestic tasks and to work as hard as the native women.  Rather quickly, the white women developed an appreciation of the Cheyenne people.  May makes this comment on the day of her marriage.
… there is a universality to poverty that transcends culture; just as in our own society, there are among the savages both rich and poor—those who are successful hunters and providers who live in well-appointed lodges with many hides and robes and have a good string of horses, and those who have little and depend on the largesse of their neighbors.  And never have I seen a more generous, selfless people than these.  I believe that those unfortunates who came to our lodge that night … were the families of men who had been killed in battle, or possibly the families of some of those poor wretches whom we had encountered at the forts—the drunk and beggars who had deserted their wives and children.
During the large middle section of the novel, the author must sustain the reader’s interest.  He does this by inventing incidents – some credible, some, in my opinion, not so credible -- that characterize what we consider flaws of Native American culture. The Native American villain of the novel -- half-breed Jim Seminole -- buys whiskey from a trading post and, with destructive intent, distributes it to the men of the tribe.  Violent, destructive actions result.  Sometime afterward, the warrior element of the tribe raids a Crow village and brings back many horses.  Later, retaliating, Crow warriors abduct many of the white women, who are subsequently rescued by their husbands.  Lives are lost including a white women.  Much later, a band of Cheyenne warriors attack a Crow village and return with ten cut-off hands of Crow babies, done ostensibly to celebrate the birth of May’s baby and to ensure that the Cheyenne tribe would dominate the Crow in the future.
Given what actual history tells us of the conflict between Native American tribes and the U.S. Government and Army in the 1870s, we know before we start reading that the white women’s habitation with the Cheyenne tribe would be brief in duration.  The author uses the improbable relationship of May and Captain Bourke to inform us of that fact.  Concerned about May’s peril, Bourke, who is a harsh critic of Indian ways, warns May through a trusted messenger that the government has rescinded the Brides for Indians program and that independent tribes like Little Wolf’s must locate on designated reservations or be militarily destroyed.  Consequently, May must determine what to advise her honorable husband: remain strong and independent and fight injustice or be realistic, accept reservation habitation, and save many lives.  The issue of believability again intrudes.
“One Thousand White Woman” has its good sections.  I applaud the author for his research and his ambitious undertaking.  Too many perceived implausibilities and event contrivances, however, limited my enjoyment of the novel.