One Thousand White Women, a Book Review
Fergus, Jim; One Thousand White Women, St. Martin's Griffin, New York; 1998, pp. 434 ISBN 978-0-312-19943-2
I read a fair amount of printed material offline and regard myself somewhat as a naturalist, so I respect American Indian stories and culture. Imagine my delight when I came upon this story based on a proposal Cheyenne Chief Little Wolf, realizing the plight of his people, made to the United States Government in 1874. In factual history, the proposal was flatly and outrightly refused.
Fergus, however, creates May Dodd as the female protagonist who, along with 49 other women, the first of an experimental installment plan, accepts Chief Little Wolf's offer and volunteers to marry a Cheyenne brave and bear a child(-ren).
The original proposal was not one-sided. The women were to be accepted in exchange for 1,000 horses, half of them tamed and the other half wild. Chief Little Wolf based his offer on the Cheyenne matriarchal structure, which assigned children to the mother's tribe. He knew his people must assimilate into the white man's culture or be annihilated. To the chief, the plan was the most humane and expeditious means of accomplishing this daunting task..
Frankly, from the way I've been treated by the so-called 'civilized' people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages.— May Dodd, protagonist in "One Thousand White Women"
About the Author
Jim Fergus came into the world under the auspices of Aries on March 23, 1950. The birthplace was Chicago, Illinois. He is of French descent and graduated from high school in Massachusetts. Later in 1971, he finished his major in English from Colorado College.
Fergus travels extensively and bases his freelance writing career in Rand,Colorado, which, according to the notes at the back of the novel, has a population of 13. Current internet resources differ, however, with population count ranging from 4 to 49. In any event, it's a small, small town, perfect for the seclusion required by a writer.
Jim Fergus published his memoir A Hunter's Road in 1992. One Thousand White Women is his first novel.
Details about Fergus and his writing are given in the following video interview.
Layout of the Book
Lately I've been seeing novels written with chapters divided between two or three protagonists. One novel I read, Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield had chapters intertwined between past and present, about 30-year differences. I missed story continuity and decided to just read the "past" chapters first, then go back through and read the present. So, I think there's a lot of experimenting by today's novelists.
Fergus, however, even though the book is somewhat experimental in its presentation, created a cohesive, chronological and systematic order through the form of a journal layout. Instead of chapters, the story is divided into "notebooks," some with a quote from Shakespeare. (May Dodd, the main character, turns out to be quite an authority on the Bard.) With each notebook are dates, just as one might see in a real journal kept routinely by an aspiring journalist or writer. The notebook titles, along with the dates covered are listed below.
Notebook I - A Train Bound for Glory (March 23 - April 11, 1875)
Notebook II - Passage to the Wilderness (April 13 - May 8, 1875)
Notebook III - My Life as an Indian Squaw (May 12 - May 22, 1875)
Notebook IV - The Devil Whiskey (May 23, 1875 - June 17, 1875)
Notebook V - A Gypsy's Life (July 7, 1875 - September 14, 1875)
Notebook VI - The Bony Bosom of Civilization (September 14 - October 18, 1875)
Notebook VII - Winter (November 1, 1875 - March 1, 1876)
All-in-all, the reader gets acknowledgements, author's note, introduction, prologue, the journal, a "codicil" by Abbot Anthony, and an epilogue by J. Will Dodd who tells how he received his grandmother's journals.
As adjuncts to the story, the book also contains a bibliography outlining Fergus' resources that helped him base this novel. There are 21 listings.
Finally, at the very end there is a reading group section to enable readers to get together and discuss the book. Presented are the author's essay explaining how his imagination was inspired by historical fact to create the novel. He also answers some personal questions about his writing and gives his biography in third-person voice. The questions spur thoughtful discussion by getting readers to compare their perspectives on Native American and modern American cultures and values.
Characters of One Thousand White Women
The characters are comprised of real-life names, acting characters, persons who are only mentioned by name, and Cheyenne tribal members. From these four categories of characters, I touch only upon those colorful female characters best known to the protagonist May Dodd. All participate in the Brides for Indians (BFI) program, except Gertie. These colorful women are as follows:
Helen Elizabeth Flight is a British avian artist, fake BFI volunteer, and sporting markswoman.
Ada "Black Ada" Ware gets her nickname from her widow's garb.
Sara Johnson is youthful, frail lady who evokes May's protective instincts. Sara doesn't speak until she becomes the first volunteer to fluently speak Cheyenne.
Margaret "Maggie" and Susan "Susie" Kelly are red-headed identical twin prostitutes who had been incarcerated for grand theft and continue to practice pickpocketing and the like.
Daisy Lovelace is a former Southern belle who carries pet poodle Fern Louise.
Gretchen "Miss Potato Face" Fathauer previously worked as a chambermaid; she is a robust, stocky Swiss woman with coarse features.
Euphemia "Pheme" Washington from Canada carries genetic heritage from the warrior Ashanti African tribe.
Narcissa White is an extreme evangelical woman sponsored by the American Church Missionary Society.
Gertie "Dirty Gertie," a.k.a. Jimmy the Muleskinner who drives and tends the mules for the U.S. Army. She hides her female identity with men's clothing.
Marie Blanche de Bretonne became orphaned in Chicago when her French parents were killed by robbers.
The language presented carries authenticity of dialog, scenery, and depth of style comparable to the early days of the westward movement and socio-political environment concerning the Native Americans by the United States Government during the late 1870s. Voice is in the first-person narrative.
The following excerpt illustriously depicts the scene between U.S. soldiers and the Cheyenne during the peace proposal speech given by Chief Little Wolf.
" . . . and the row of soldiers flanking the hall fell into formation, bayonets at the ready position. In response, the Cheyenne chiefs all stood up in unison, instinctively drawing knives and forming a circle, shoulders touching, in the way that a bevy of quail beds down at night to protect itself from predators."
Exquisite dialogue of Margaret Kelly appears on page 45:
"Wouldn't 'appen to 'ave a bit of tobacco on ye, Missy, would ya now?
Daisy Lovelace answers Margaret with equally colorful dialect:
"Ah'm afraid naught," says the woman in a slow drawl, and in not a particularly friendly tone.
These types of conversational dialogue appear consistently throughout the book, as well as phrases in the Cheyenne and French languages.
Another masterful passage appears when May describes her consummation of the marriage on pages 170-171.
I then fell into a deep slumber and had the strangest dream . . . my husband was now in the tent . . . dancing softly, noiselessly, his moccasined feet rising and falling gracefully . . . danced like a spirit around me . . . . I began to become aroused, felt a tingling in my stomach . . . . I lay on my stomach breathing shallowly and pressing myself against the blanket . . . . I tried to reach him, but he moved away . . . . as if with feathers, teasing and brushing . . . . my body trembled, shook and bucked, and in my dream I was not a human being any longer with a separate consciousness, but became a part of something older and more primitive, truer . . . .
The author has taken an recorded historical event and masterfully created a fictional world of a woman outcast by her well-to-do family and institutionalized during the westward movement when the United States Government was eliminating and relocating Native American Indian tribes. She joins the BFI program to escape her dismal, hopeless life in an insane asylum.
The subject matter is for a mature adult reader due to the basis of sexuality necessary to tell the story. The narrative is filled with adventure, romance, humor, colorful characters, convincing dialogue, and unique scenery descriptions.
For a male author to meticulously create a piece of historical fiction in a woman's voice and present something of the Cheyenne culture, I wholeheartedly applaud his success.
Additional Novels by Author Jim Fergus
The Wild Girl: The Notebooks of Ned Giles (Hyperion Books) 2005
The Last Apache Girl (Hyperion Books) 2005
Marie Blanche (Le Cherche Midi, Paris) 2011
The Vengeance of Mothers (St. Martin's Press) 2017
© 2020 Marie Flint