My book club, like I think every book club in the country, picked Jim Fergus’ “One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd” as our latest read. After finishing it (in just a few days, it’s a quick one), I understand why it’s popular with book clubs. This book brings up a lot of topics to discuss, and I think it’s one of those books that many people really love or really hate.
Fergus is a journalist, though this is a work of fiction. But the idea came about when he learned about a peace conference in 1854 at Fort Laramie. A prominent Cheyenne chief asked for 1,000 white women from the United States Government to be brides for his warriors. The thought was that these children, because the Cheyenne are matrilineal, would belong to their mother’s tribe and thus help assimilate the Cheyenne into the white world. In real life, this didn’t happen. Fergus’ book imagines it did.
May Dodd is one of those white women who go to live with the Cheyenne. She chooses to go because she’d been placed in an insane asylum by her family and this was her way out. She ends up marrying Chief Little Wolf, and becomes his third wife. The book follows her decision to join the program, the journey out to the prairie, and what happens after the 40 women she starts traveling with are actually given to the tribe.
I thought this book was interesting–like I mentioned about, it reads quickly–and May had a definite voice. She was a complicated character, as were those around her. There is a wonderful cast of white women and Cheyenne people that Fergus does a good job of fleshing out. For the most part, I think he did a good job of portraying what life on the prairie was like, and probably got very close to what life was like for the Cheyenne during that period.
My biggest complaint with this book: it seemed like Fergus made a list of all the stereotypes of Native Americans, and then one by one, had them happen in the book. Don’t handle alcohol well, check. Kidnap and rape women, check. I understand upping the stakes, giving your character problems to overcome … but man, if it could happen to May Dodd, it happened. I felt the same way about this book as I did after watching the movie Armageddon (Yup, I’m referencing a movie from the 90s. Guess how old I am). The only thing left to go wrong in that movie was Bruce Willis breaking his thumb, somehow, before he could push the trigger button. (Sorry if that’s lost on you because you haven’t seen that movie.) It becomes a giant eye-roll.
I would say if you enjoy reading about mid 19th century America or if you enjoy Native American stories, you’ll enjoy this book. If you want an easy beach read, you’d probably enjoy this book. Fergus is a good writer, so I wouldn’t be opposed to reading another book he’s written. He creates interesting characters and does a good job of placing you in the setting and appealing to all of your senses.