One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus has been on my want-to-read list for many years, and I was thrilled to buy a copy of it one summer in a small shop during a trip to South Dakota. But then, it sat on my bookcase for a year, two years, and more, languishing there as so many books do, while I tried to find time to read it. This summer, looking through that big bookcase of TBR books for any with more than 400 pages for my annual Big Book Summer Challenge, I finally made the time to read it. Why did it take me so long to read this unique, riveting historical novel?
Rather than focusing on an event from history, as most historical fiction does, this novel takes an event that almost – but didn’t – happen and asks, “What if?” In 1854, at a peace conference between Native Americans and the U.S. Army, a Northern Cheyenne chief requested a gift of 1,000 white women to be brides for Cheyenne warriors. Since children belong to the mother’s tribe in Cheyenne tradition, this seemed to be a reasonable request to the chief and an ideal way to help the Cheyenne assimilate into the white world. Of course, in real life, the U.S. authorities said no to this request, but in this novel, they say yes.
In order to rationalize the propriety of such an unheard of “gift,” the U.S. officials seek out volunteers for their secret Brides for Indians program from among women in prisons and mental institutions, as well as others who volunteer for their own reasons. One of these women is May Dodd, a young woman in Chicago who’d been wrongly imprisoned in a mental institution by her wealthy family because she’d fallen in love with a man “beneath her station” and was an embarrassment to the family. Compared to a life inside the walls of the asylum, where she was abused and mistreated and had little chance of ever leaving, a required year spent being a wife to an Indian seems like a small price to pay.
As the train fills up with other Indian brides, May meets her new female companions, who are each escaping their own problems. The women are moved across the West from one Army fort to another, until finally, their new husbands come to meet them and take them home. Home for these Cheyenne is a village of tipis in the remote grasslands of Wyoming, and the women begin to settle into their new lives.
Life with the Cheyenne is far more than just foreign to these women used to living in towns and cities across America. It is wholly unlike anything they have ever experienced or could have imagined. The entire novel is told from May’s point of view, from journals she keeps during that time that were then saved by the Cheyenne for generations. May describes not only the details of everyday life but also the special occasions and more unusual events that unfold. The reader is carried along on this adventure, as May is caught between two very different worlds and falls in love with two very different men.
I was captivated with every aspect of this novel – the historical background, the experiences of the women, and the details of life with the Cheyenne. Although the triggering event didn’t really happen, the novel is set against a historical backdrop, with extensive research to back it up, so the details of the Cheyenne’s daily life, the external events happening between the Native Americans and the U.S. government, and even some of the characters in the Army and the Cheyenne tribe are all based in historical fact.
Further, Fergus has created a fascinating and engaging fictional world, peopled with real-feeling characters. The Native American characters and the white brides are all unique and fully drawn. The women, in particular, feel like old friends by the time you finish the book. In fact, the author has created a world so real that people sometimes look at the subtitle of this novel and think it is based on the real journals of a real woman named May Dodd!
I was spellbound by this novel, from beginning to end, transported to a different place and time. The story is realistic, suspenseful, heart-breaking, and sometimes even funny (I was particularly fond of Gretchen). I read the 400+ pages in no time at all and wished there was more. I guess a lot of people felt that way because according to his website, Fergus is hard at work on a second book in a planned trilogy that starts with One Thousand White Women (the tentative publication date is in 2016). I can’t wait to read more of this story!
434 pages, St. Martin’s Press