Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Books: One Thousand White Women

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
By Jim Fergus
Copyright 1998, 2006
Read by Laura Hicks
14 hours

As I listened to this story of Native Americans and white culture, my husband joined me about half-way through.

So convincing were the details of the journals he thought it a true story until I told him otherwise, and I had trouble remembering it was fiction at times.

May Dodd is an upper class and well-bred woman of Chicago who had the misfortune to fall in love with a lower class man. Her father, being a railroad baron, determined his daughter was insane because she dared step out of the norms for her station, and placed her in an asylum. He also took the couple's two children. Dodd never knew what became of her husband.

After months in the asylum, during which time she was tortured by being tied to the bed and molested at night by staff, she met with men from the US government who offered to send her to the west to be a bride to a Cheyenne Native American, so long as she could bear him a child.

Dodd agreed, and the book, laid out in journal format, is the tale of her travels to the west and of her short life with the Cheyenne.

In a prologue, the author informs us, via a fictional narrator, that President Grant had instituted a covert government program called Brides for Indians following the request of Little Wolf, a Cheyenne Sweet Medicine Man. According to Little Wolf, his people recognized offspring of women as belonging to the tribe of the mother. Thus, children of white women would be recognized as belonging to the white culture, and in this way the Cheyenne would be assimilated into the advancing white man's world. After an initial outcry of protest, government officials secretly approved the program and determined to send prostitutes, prisoners and those in insane asylums to the Indians in exchange for a horse per woman.

So it was that May Dodd went west. She was joined by about 50 other white women, and one former slave, in this first wave of women brides.

En route to the tribal encampment, Dodd fell in love with Captain John Bourke. But she had signed a contract saying she would go to the Cheyenne and she determined to honor it.

Life among the Cheyenne people was hard and difficult and many of their ways seemed savage. In the end, the question of who is truly the savage seems pretty obviously answered.

As a writer myself, I enjoyed the writing in this book. I liked the way the prologue introduced the journals and explained the government's position on the Brides for Indians program. The journals themselves were extremely well done and Jim Fergus captured the voice of his protagonist well. I read one review that exclaimed over his ability to capture the voice of women; I submit that his voice was simply that of a perceptive person who had the ability to bear children, for at times the voice did not seem so much female as simply human.

While I am no expert on the west or the destruction of the Native Americans, from what I do know this book seemed well-grounded in fact. The Native American ceremonies, their practices, and way of life rang true throughout, as did the Army's staunch adherence to orders and regulations. I also had no trouble believing that the federal government would undertake a covert program such as Brides for Indians (in fact, I looked it up to see if it might be based on fact but aside from this book could find no other reference to it). I had no problem believing that the US government would decide this would be a good way to rid itself of undesirables, regardless of race and gender.

I read this book for my book club and I found it mesmerizing. I recommend it not only for the story but also for writers who wish to examine a different way to put together a book. For writers, I recommend reading the book and not the audio: I rather wish I'd read it instead of listening to it and may revisit it in its true form.

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