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.
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 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?