One Thousand White Women, The Journals of May Dodd

Jim Fergus
St. Martins Griffin, 1998

UnknownFergus took an obscure historical event, played with it, and wrote fictional imaginative history. It is true that in 1854 a Cheyenne chief proposed an unprecedented exchange to U.S. army officers. Cheyenne culture was matrilineal where all children belonged to the mother’s tribe, so the chief’s offer to accept one thousand white women who would marry Cheyenne men and have children who were considered white was considered a peace offering. In exchange the tribe would give one thousand horses, but of course the army officers were appalled and refused.

The historical footnote gave Fergus an intriguing springboard to suggest what could have happened. He invented May Dodd who told the first person story of a group of women who voluntarily joined with the Cheyenne to produce children through her journal and letters. Oh my.

Author Jim Fergus

Author Jim Fergus

There are so many ways this story could be told to plead for the moral rightness of the settlers and pioneers or cast the Cheyennes as victims overrun in their ancestral lands. To his credit, Fergus takes a middle ground of letting May Dodd, who fortuitously is singled out to to marry the Cheyenne Chief, tell a story with a more nuanced cultural eye that observes the strengths and weaknesses on both sides. He neatly ties it up with the only real villain as half Indian and half white.

During the train ride west to begin the adventure Dodd introduces the colorful collection of misfits who did not meet the rigid standards of proper female behavior of the mid 1800s. Among them is the enthusiastic, talented ornithologist whose paintings rivaled Audubon, the disgraced Southern Belle who lost her value when her father lost his money, the orphan Irish twins prone to trickery and thievery to survive, the outspoken, overlooked and too strong for her time in history Gretchen, and of course, May.

In case you are interested, this book is an excellent resource about how hard to handle or poor women were put in asylums in the U.S. in the not too distant past.

In case you are interested, this book is an excellent resource about how hard-to-handle or poor women were put in asylums in the U.S. in the not too distant past.

The heroine May was among the volunteers from a women’s mental asylum which were so popular at the time for women who went against the wishes or dictates of their parents or husband. Rather than waste away in a cell where her father put her because she humiliated him by running off with a man beneath her social position and having two children, May journeys to Wyoming to marry a sight unseen “savage.” Fergus upped the story possibilities and tension by having May fall into the arms of an army captain charged with overseeing the exchange with the Cheyenne.

The writing is good, and usually flows smoothly, but did the phrase “coyote ugly” really exist in the 1850s? There were only few missteps, and they were a small price to pay for enjoying Fergus’s more intriguing philosophical questions. Who should “own” the land, how do you choose a side when no one is fully blameless or without merit, and how do you know when it is best to fight and when to submit?

Cheyenne Warriors painted by Edward S. Curtis.

Cheyenne Warriors painted by Edward S. Curtis.

It is a blend of love story and an interesting look at life on the American frontier. And while I complain of coyote ugly, Fergus writes evocative and beautiful descriptions of the prairie through May and her life with the Cheyenne that she finishes with, “How extraordinarily fortunate I am.”

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10 Responses to One Thousand White Women, The Journals of May Dodd

  1. katecrimmins says:

    Sounds very interesting

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    Sounds like a very interesting book. Just added it to my Goodreads to-read list. Thanks!

  3. It is and with a cast of interesting characters.

  4. Sounds captivating, Rebecca. You review a great variety of books. Thanks for the review. Good to know. Now, where is my pen? 🙂

  5. Yes, I’m a book slut, I’m afraid. No genre is safe from me. Thanks for commenting.

  6. tchistorygal says:

    This sounds like a great read! You write an awesome review! 🙂

  7. Thanks, and it is a good book.

  8. marymtf says:

    I like the idea of a book that likes to see both sides of an issue. It’s rare these days. Thank you for reviewing it. I will look it up..

  9. I know what you mean. It seems everyone has an agenda, but I also know that when writing fiction sometimes you just have to pick a viewpoint. Thanks for commenting.

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