One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
St. Martin’s Press/1998
Reviewed By: Sheri de Grom
I might have missed Jim Fergus’ debut novel, One Thousand White Women, had it not been a Target Club Pick. I’ve met some great new authors via their selections. Jim Fergus is an author I’ve added to my growing list of writers to follow.
Within the pages of One Thousand White Women is a story that moves briskly, involves complex characters, a sense of adventure, beautiful landscapes and genuine human emotion.
One Thousand White Women is based on actual historical events but told through fictional diaries. The Cheyenne Nation proposed a trade of 1,000 horses to President Ulysses S. Grant in exchange for 1,000 white women. The trade was initiated in September of 1874 by the great Cheyenne, Sweet Medicine Chief Little Wolf.
Chief Little Wolf and a delegation of his tribesmen make the journey to DC for the express purpose of choosing a lasting peace with the whites.
The Cheyenne numbers are dwindling and they need women of child-bearing age. They are also thinking progressively and understand that one day they will have to assimilate into the white man’s culture. Little Wolf believes it is an opportunity for his tribe to survive. The white women, as wives, will teach the tribe and their children the white man’s ways for when the buffalo are gone.
Set in the 1870s, at the height of the Plains Indian Wars, One Thousand White Women tells of a diverse collection of courageous young women who travel west to live and marry among the Cheyenne Nation. The plan is a bold secret U.S. government program set forth to bring peace to the Great Plains. The women are both volunteers and recruits—some felons, some insane and committed to lunatic asylums, some simply lonely souls with nothing left to lose. What they have in common is that they all live on the fringes of society. They have no choice but to leave the so-called civilized world behind and enter the strange, terrifying, exhilarating world of the savages.
Most enticing of all, Jim Fergus narrates in first-person the fictional journals of May Dodd, the primary role in the novel. I don’t know of a female author who could have written a finer voice for this complex individual. May is alive: her desires, needs, hurts, fears and passions are all written within the pages of her diary. The reader doesn’t have to guess about May. She’s a complete woman. Jim Fergus’ knowledge of May’s experiences is written with exquisite detail.
May rationalizes nothing will be as bad as being committed to an asylum by her blue-blooded family for the crime of loving a man beneath her station. If she agrees to marry an Indian, she only has to stay with the tribe one year. She doesn’t have a release date for her confinement at the asylum.
On the day May boards a train to begin her trip to Camp Robinson, Nebraska Territory; she’s joined by forty-seven other volunteers.
. . .Pg.32[Mr. Benton assured us that we are contractually obligated to bear but one child with our Indian husbands, after which time we are free to go, or stay, as we choose. Should we fail to become with child, we are required to remain with our husbands for two full years, after which time we are free to do as we wish. . . or, at least, so say the authorities.]. . .
The train proceeds to its destination with infrequent and brief stops. It seems that at each stop two or three women manage to leave the train and the number of brides dwindles.
The women look forward to reaching Fort Laramie where they are able to rest for a week. The fort turns out to be just another dusty godforsaken place. They miss the lushness of the Chicago prairie they’d left behind. After a week at Fort Laramie, their next stop will be Camp Robinson, where they’ll meet their Indian husbands.
May meets Captain John Bourke at Fort Laramie and a brief, passionate romance follows. The love affair follows May the remainder of her life.
. . .Pg.80[betrothed to a man whom I have not met, infatuated with a man whom I cannot have. Good God! Perhaps my family was correct in committing me to the asylum for promiscuity. . .]. . .
Before leaving May with the Cheyenne people, Captain Bourke argues for her to return to the fort with him, but she maintains they could never have an open relationship and she’ll carry out her promise to the government.
. . .Pg.125[Good Lord! Four days here, no time to make journal entries, exhausted, nearly insane from strangeness, sleeplessness, lack of privacy. I fear the Captain was right, this entire experiment is insane, a terrible mistake. Like moving into a den with a pack of wild dogs.]. . .
The author uses humor throughout the telling of this story that would otherwise be stark with dark details page after page. One I particularly enjoyed is when May is writing a pretend letter to her sister and telling her about the wedding that is to take place when she is to marry the Chief.
. . .Pg.150-151[dearest sister, on the brighter side. It has finally been determined that we are to be wed with the others in a group ceremony tomorrow evening. Reverend Hare, an enormous Episcopalian missionary who has accompanied us into the wilderness, will be performing the Christian services. Would that you were here to act as my bridesmaid! Ah, how I love to imagine the family all gathered together . . . staying in our . . . guest tent! Father thin-lipped and appalled, Mother alternately weeping and swooning in abject horror of the heathens. Why, we’d be administering smelling salts to her every quarter hour! God, what fun it would be! I, who have always had such a talent for shocking the family, have this time truly outdone myself, wouldn’t you agree?]
I’m further amazed with the sensitivity and emotion written into May’s journals as she writes of the differences in her love and passions for the three men who have been in her life. Although she professes to love Chief Little Wolf and she’s pregnant, she cannot pretend to love the Chief with the passion she’ll always have for Captain John Bourke. Theirs was not just a physical passion but a love of both intellect and flesh—body, mind, and soul.
. . .Pg.191[my first, Harry Ames, a physical love like a spark, to be extinguished by the darkness of my asylum cell; only to be reignited by the implausible light of a new love like a shooting star. Yes, for if Harry Ames was the bright, erratic spark of my womanhood, then John Bourke was my shooting star, burning brilliantly and intensely. And this man Little Wolf, my lodge fire, offering warmth and security . . . he is my husband, I shall be a good and a faithful wife to him. I shall bear his children.]
Of the numerous women who enter the Cheyenne agreement, the author brings forth each one’s personality and develops it fully. I become acquainted with these women and care for them and the relationships they develop. I haven’t had the luxury of meeting a finer cast of characters and, unlike other novels I’ve read, never once was I lost or confused by the large and unique group of individuals.
Daily activities are presented with historical correctness, ceremonial occasions, hunt parties, nomadic lifestyles, and the clear division of what is considered men and women’s work.
The author explores the evils of alcohol on Native Americans, the illegal trading practices by white traders when the Indians bring them furs in exchange for winter provisions, and finally, the white man’s pursuit of gold and the insistence that all Native Americans be moved to reservations.
Jim Fergus knows the American West and its native people. May Dodd’s journals are a time capsule. Her story is told with meticulous attention to detail, amazing insight and sensitivity.
One Thousand White Women has maintained a continuous following among book clubs and has sustained sales by word of mouth. The novel has won numerous awards and is an international bestseller. One Thousand White Women was on the French bestseller list for fifty-seven weeks.
I selected One Thousand White Women from my ‘to be read stack’ and it became an instant treasure. I highly recommend this novel for individuals and book groups alike.