23 March 1875 Today is my birthday, and I have received the greatest gift of all - freedom! I make these first poor scribblings aboard the westbound Union Pacific train with departed Union Station Chicago at 6.35 a.m. this morning, bound for Nebraska Territory.ISBN: 0312199430
–Jim Fergus - One Thousand White Women - c.1998 - Notebook I - pg. 15
See also: HistoricalFavorites ; Jim Fergus.com
In 1854 a Cheyenne chief asked the United States government for one thousand white brides to marry into the people. Cheyenne society was a matrilineal society the resulting children, to their minds, would belong to white society. Yet they would also have an understanding of Cheyenne ways, and so it seemed a good way of joining white man’s society. Of course this didn’t go down to well in the white man’s world, and the offer was refused.
In this novel Fergus imagines what would have happened had the US govt decided to go along with this Cheyenne idea. In secret, of course.
The main protagonist in the novel is May Dodd, it is her journal that we are reading. And the letters she wrote to her family members back east, knowing she would never post them, and so using them more as a method of venting her frustrations and feelings at life in general. Before she agreed to join the Brides programme May was locked away in a mental asylum. The reason, she tells us, is that she committed the crime of falling in love. Falling in love and having two out of wedlock children with a man far beneath her in class and standing. Her family were not impressed and so arranged to have her placed out of sight, and out of mind. And, in order to escape the asylum she agrees to travel west and marry a strange savage Indian.
The whole book is told through Dodd’s eyes, she introduces us to the other women who have likewise agreed. The criminal, the insane, the poor and the adventurous. But there aren’t a thousand, she and her companions are the first train to leave the east. And as gold is discovered in Indian territory, they will be the last.
I quite enjoyed this book. It tells a good story and moves at a fairly decent pace. The writing style is very readable and it is all entertaining.
But May and her companions don’t really seem all that well-drawn as characters. Part of that I suppose is because it is May who is describing the other women, and indeed the Cheyennes she meets. And she describes them in cliches and stereotypes. We have the southern plantation lady with a drawl, a poodle, and a reluctance to marry any dahmn niggah, there are the Irish red headed twins with their thieving and oirish accents. The silent and noble Cheyenne chief, the dirty no-good half-breed.
And because of that I was never really all that gripped by this read. And it also made me wonder of some of the events that happened, or character traits, were there simply to move the plot along. Merely a device to get X here and Y there. Still, it was entertaining, and raised some interesting points. But at the end of the day it wasn’t a great read.