Monday, March 30, 2009

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

Am I the only one who loves the phrase "based on true events"?  

So, One Thousand White Women is based on an actual historical event in which a Native American chief, at a meeting with President Grant, asked for one thousand white women as wives for members of his tribe.  His line of thought followed the Native American tradition that children always belonged to the mother's tribe, so if his braves had children with the women then they would belong to the "white" tribe and thus the Native Americans could assimilate into the "white" culture more easily.  You can imagine the reaction of President Grant and all in attendance.  

However, Jim Fergus takes the stance that perhaps the U.S. Government thought this might be a crafty way of Christianizing and controlling the Native Americans and so agrees to the deal.  Unfortunately for the Cheyenne in the novel, the government cleans out several insane asylums of all the healthy, not-too-crazy women of childbearing age for the first shipment.  Mary Dodd finagles her way into the deal, determined to get away from the sadistic "caregivers" at the asylum to which she was committed by her family for promiscuity.  She had dared to live out of wedlock with a man below her station and further compounded that crime by having two children with the man.  Her family kidnaps her, takes her children, and commits her to the asylum.  She has no idea what, if any, part her lover had in all this and despairs of ever seeing her children again but she would do anything to get out of her prison...even take a train to (what she considers to be) the nothingness of the Great Plains and the depredations of the "heathens".

So, what we have here is sort of Dances with Wolves (specifically the movie, as I haven't read the book) from a feminine perspective.  I found Mary Dodd to be somewhat shallow, though with more depth than some of her companions in the adventure.  Plus, Mr. Fergus seemed inordinately concerned with matters good and bad below the waist.  I kept wondering what would have been different about the story if it had been written by a woman.  Would sexuality and manbashing have been less of an issue?  It felt to me as if Mr. Fergus was writing the way he thought women thought and was more than slightly off target.  Plus, and this was a big issue for me, even after Mary saw the differences between her adopted people and what she thought they would be like (and how different they were from those afflicted by alcoholism whom she'd seen near the fort), she still referred to them in thought and speech as "heathens".  I didn't want her to be that shallow.

We all know the history of the Native Americans so the Hamlet-esque ending came as no surprise.  Overall, it was an enjoyable book.  I liked watching the characters come to grips with their situations, some more nobly than others.  I just felt like it could have had more depth if Mr. Fergus didn't seem so focused on such a shallow inner life for the women.  Anyone else read this book?  What did you think of it?

1 comment:

Sharon said...

I've been wondering about this book and even put it on my wish list at Amazon. I think it will be qushed back some now.... Thanks for this review.