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

by Jenn (eating bender) on July 19, 2012

I have to admit that for someone writing a book about the 19th-century American West, I haven’t read too many novels from that time period. I’ve dived into plenty of non-fiction books and feel giddy when I find almanacs on Etsy, but beyond that, my fictional research is noticeably less impressive. There’s a part of me that worries that by reading a book so closely aligned with my time period, I will feel somehow inadequate and think, “That author said it best. Why should I even try?”

My self-deprecating fear is what originally prevented me from picking up a copy of Jim Fergus’ One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd. I first came across this book at Target several months ago, read the back cover and put it back on the shelf. Not because I wasn’t interested, but again because I felt that reading fiction from the same time and place – even if the plot was completely different – would somehow negatively affect my own work. I proceeded to pass by it nearly every time I returned to Target over the next few months – that is, until two weeks ago, when I bought it on impulse. Surprise, surprise – I’m very glad I did.

Not only was the book itself amazing, but it also reinvigorated my passion for this fantastic period in history. There is so much to tell and so many diverse experiences worth sharing. I can only hope that one day, my book will play a part in the storytelling.

In Short

This is a story of female strength – one of the main reasons why I loved it, of course – in the face of difficult decisions and the cruel eyes of 19th-century society. It primarily showcases the faults and holes in some of the logic the government used in dealing with Native Americans in the West. While the book itself is pure fiction, the attitudes and actions of many of the characters are very real. Read this book if you are interested in learning more about what it was like to live as a white female among Native Americans deemed trespassers on their own land – very intriguing subject matter.

The Details

The book begins with a real event in history that Jim Fergus deems the “seed” that grew into a novel. During a peace conference at Fort Laramie in 1854, a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief requested one thousand white women as brides for his young men. His reasoning? Because children are born into their mother’s tribe, the chief believed that procreating with white wives would be the perfect means of assimilation into white society. As you can probably imagine, in real life this request was not well received in Washington, and the white women were never sent to the Cheyenne people. In Jim Fergus’ novel, they are.

Through a fictional “Brides for Indians” program, the central character, May Dodd, is sent to marry the great chief Little Wolf, along with quite the cast of fellow white women who band together to form an entertaining group as they too enter into marriage with Cheyenne men. The program is completely voluntary, and May decides to go because she has nothing else to lose – after all, she has been committed to an insane asylum for having children out of wedlock with a man who is considered beneath her family’s worth. What a nut, right? Right…

The other women have their own backgrounds and reasons for coming. Jim Fergus does an amazing job with character development. From special accents to unmistakable physical descriptions, you will really feel as though you know everyone you encounter in this book. Before May and the other women meet their future husbands, however, they make a stop at a U.S. Army fort where May shares a brief and passionate romance with captain John Bourke. What follows afterward is an exciting plot of love, heartbreak, peace, violence – and above all, a will to survive. You will truly feel as though you are living among nature as you read her first-person perspective – written as though she is penning a journal – and Jim Fergus’ knowledge of life for Native Americans before Western settlers took over their land is truly impressive. For what it’s worth, the ending had me in tears.


I came across a quote from Jim Fergus in a post-book interview that I thought worth sharing. Whether you’re a writer or a reader, I think you’ll find his words inspiring.

“As the characters took shape and the story unfolded around them, their world became my reality; I lived with them and grew to love them, or hate them, or pity them, as the case might be…This is where the collaboration between reader and writer comes full circle, and we become fellow travelers in a fictional world of our mutual creation.”

I realize now that my fear was not worth the time and energy. If anything, this book has brought on an entire new train of thought that I look forward to exploring in the coming weeks. Let me know if you pick up a copy of One Thousand White Women for yourself.

What book(s) have you been loving lately?


1 Kayla @Keep Moving Forward July 19, 2012 at 9:30 pm

I love reading a new and great book! I am just finishing up The Book Thief for next weeks book club meeting! It is a great one – a young German girl living during WWII – a perspective I have not read from before!
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2 Jenn (eating bender) July 22, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Ooh, sounds interesting, Kayla! I will definitely have to check that one out. Thanks for the recommendation!

3 Cara (Twinthusiast) July 20, 2012 at 10:48 am

As you know I loved Moonwalking with Einstein. Also just finished The Queen’s Vow and Confessions of Catherine de Medici – fun historical fiction. I’m adding this one to my list to read!
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4 Jenn (eating bender) July 22, 2012 at 5:58 pm

Awesome list of books to add to my “to-read” list. I’m also planning to tackle The House I Loved next. :)

5 Emily July 21, 2012 at 10:10 pm

That book is actually sitting on my dresser right now waiting to be read! It’s been on my list forever and I got my hands on a copy. Can’t wait to read it!
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6 Jenn (eating bender) July 22, 2012 at 5:58 pm

That’s so cool, Emily! You will definitely have to let me know what you think of it!

7 Vegan July 25, 2012 at 12:17 am

I like historical fiction. I appreciate writers who take the time to research their stories well. However, I had some of the same gripes as previous reviewers. For one, I thought the writing was very mediocre, it was abound with cliches.

8 Melanee July 25, 2012 at 2:30 am

I love that you are writing something about the 19th Century American West and am so happy you made a connection with the book and felt reinvigorated. Having grown up in the American West, I know a lot of people who would be very interested in reading it, myself included.

Much of my reading time lately is to my children, particularly my almost 2nd grader. We are reading Treasure Island, Pollyanna, Charlotte’s Web, and some beautiful picture books like The Story of Ping, How to Bake and Apple Pie and See the World, A Clown for God, and several others.

Today on our way to the orthodontist out of town, my three girls and I listened to a book called The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die, by Dr. John Izzo, and stopped the recording to discuss it from time to time. The manner in which he conducted his research was very interesting, which included sifting through a thousand people to find a small number of “wise elders.” Although his “secrets” weren’t life shattering, the point he made is that most people have an intellectual understanding of what makes a person happy and fulfilled before they die, but they never get around to putting them into practice.

Much cheering with your writing and thank-you for your ever enlightening website.
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9 Jenn (eating bender) August 5, 2012 at 11:10 pm

It is so good to hear that you are interested in books about the American West. While I do prescribe to the model that as an author I need to “write for myself and no one else,” I also find it motivating to hear that people would be intrigued by what I’ve decided to write about! :)

Your story about “The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die” is so interesting. I love that you listen to books with your girls and discuss them as you go along. That is definitely something I want to do with my kids someday. Your book list is full of many of my favorites. If I can pass along even a fraction of my love for reading to my children, I will be so happy.

Thank you, as always, for your kind and thoughtful comments, Melanee.

10 Lilly August 4, 2012 at 2:15 pm

My book club is reading this book this month. I love your description. Your site is fantastic. I look forward to reading future posts!

11 Jenn (eating bender) August 5, 2012 at 11:06 pm

Thank you so much, Lilly! You will have to let me know what you think of the book. I’m so glad you stopped by my blog!

12 Lilly August 14, 2012 at 7:30 am

I just finished the book and it was fantastic. I loved it and really got caught up in May’s world. I’m sad it’s over but I do love starting a new book.
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13 Jenn (eating bender) August 15, 2012 at 9:29 am

Woohoo! I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed the book. I always get that feeling of “loss” when a book is over and I can’t be in the character’s world anymore, too, but hopefully your next read will be equally exciting. You’ll have to let me know what you pick!

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