St. Martins Griffin, 1998
Fergus 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.
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.
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?
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.”