Triumphs, Tropes, Traps and Takeaways from the novel One Thousand White Women, The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus
The novel that inspired the Book Babes Club.
A note before I go into the 4 T’s of good reads— Triumphs, Tropes, Traps, and Takeaways: I decided to read this novel upon Chelsea Handler’s mention of it in the NY Times Sunday Book Review, By the Book feature. From the first page of One Thousand White Women, I was immediately drawn into the world of May Dodd so much that I began to recommend it to all of my friends who are avid readers. Soon, we realized that we had a critical mass of women reading the book (you could say the book went viral among my group of friends) and we decided: why not start a book club, read with intention and once a month share our thoughts about good reads among great friends and fine wine. (Coffee doesn’t cut it since we meet at happy hour one Thursday a month, plus a glass of Cab or Pinot Grigio is the perfect reading companion in the evenings)
From the first pages of this book, I believed that the story unfolding and its characters were real. Author Jim Fergus expertly sets up the premise of the novel with an “Introduction by Jim Dodd,” the great-grandson of the main character, May Dodd. He grew up hearing family stories about his “crazy” great-grandmother “who lived in an insane asylum and ran off to live with Indians—at least that was the fertile, if somewhat vague, raw material of the secret family legend,” he remembers. Jim, a working journalist, decided to pursue this family secret and uncover the truth of his mysterious and controversial ancestor May Dodd after discovering a letter she wrote to her two small children while in the asylum. That letter eventually leads to a treasure trove of journals May Dodd had written during her time in the asylum and her fascinating experiences as an Indian bride in a government sanctioned “social experiment” with the Cheyenne tribe in 1875. Kudos to author Jim Fergus for masterful writing that allowed me to suspend my disbelief and inhabit the world of May Dodd, viscerally and emotionally. For me the test of a great novel is one that makes me sad that I finished reading it, a sorrowful goodbye where I find myself missing the characters and their world. I so wanted May Dodd to be a real person and I imagine if she was, she would have influenced the course of history by injecting humanity, respect, dignity and understanding in a failed and flawed governmental policy of “civilizing” the American Indian population.
The literary vehicle of recounting a story via old journals is an oft-used one. The author skillfully navigates the pitfalls of this narrative cliche by including a Codicil from Abbot Anthony, a monk who stayed for a brief time with the Cheyenne Tribe, and an Epilogue by Jim Dodd dated 1997 to fill in the blanks that would ordinarily be left by the limited perspective and knowledge resulting from first-person journal writings.
I found plausible President Grant’s program to trade white brides to the Cheyenne tribe for horses in an effort to assimilate the native population; however, certain ancillary events stretched the limits of my ability to suspend disbelief. Case in point— the gleeful acceptance by May’s Indian chief husband Little Wolf of her illegitimate child from a romance with Captain John Bourke, commander of a military attachment charged with forcing the Indians off their land onto reservations. “It is good that He’amaveho’e has given to me, the Sweet Medicine Chief, a white baby to teach us the new way,” Little Chief exclaims upon discovering the white baby girl is not his. LIttle Chief calls the child “the white baby Jesus” sent to lead his people to the promised land. There are a few other difficult-to-believe events that chipped away at the novel’s realistic plot and characters but none that prevented me reading on.
Jim Fergus brings us an alternate Native American narrative, other than the white-washed version we learn in school history books. Through the perspective of a white woman living as an Indian wife, the author gives us a more conflicted and nuanced chronicle of the displacement of Native Americans. May Dodd loves and admires her husband, Little Chief and his people, but she is often repulsed by some of the Indians’ harsh customs. May struggles to understand and embrace certain behaviors. For most of the book, I both sympathize and empathize with the plight of the Cheyennes until one very graphic scene in the novel that depicts a celebration in which members of the Cheyenne tribe rejoice over bags of the severed hands of babies from their Shoshone tribe. I experienced the same disgust and outrage among the “civilized” world when Captain John Bourke senselessly shoots and kills Horse Boy, a loyal friend to May Dodd. I can only imagine the competing emotions May Dodd must’ve experienced trying to reconcile her own morality, humanity and spiritual beliefs with those of the people she lives among and her own government.
The author has richly drawn colorful characters that propel the story including the conniving Kelly twins, Margaret and Susan, Bird painter Elizabeth Flight, Martha, May Dodd’s friend in the asylum, the destitute debutante Daisy Lovelace, big-Swiss miss, Gretchen Fathauer and African Princess Phemie, a former slave. I would like to befriend these characters in real life, full of spirit, hope, stamina and humanity, all in search of a better life, an escape from their current dire circumstances. I root for them, cry with them and sadly suffer the loss of several of them who don’t survive the events of 1875-76. The Kelly twins are among the few who do survive the government’s failed social experiment and go on to seek revenge in Jim Fergus’ follow-up novel, The Vengeance of Mothers, The Journals of Margaret Kelly and Molly McGill.
In our next blog post, you’ll hear the thoughts and opinions from members of the Book Babes Club as we meet to discuss One Thousand White Women from our various points of views so check back for more on this intriguing novel.