book review, historical fiction

Review: One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus is an alt-history novel, of sorts, in which the US government agreed to the true to life request of the Cheyenne tribe to send white brides to them in order to help integrate the Cheyenne into white society and thus survive. In reality, President Grant refused, but Jim Fergus crafts a scenario in which the proposal is agreed to but only with volunteers–mainly spinsters, scandalized women, or women in asylums. The latter of which is where the main character, May Dodd, comes from simply because she was in a relationship and had children with a man of lower socioeconomic status from her family. Fergus frames the story as a set of May’s journals and letters found years later by an ancestor.
Fergus both skirts and integrates historical events and people in this what-if scenario. For example, May is married off to Cheyenne Sweet Medicine Chief Little Wolf, who actually existed. Additionally, May has a brief liaison with Captain John Bourke, who was also a real person.
May herself had been placed in an asylum by her family under the guise of deviant promiscuity, and the only way May saw a way out to ever see her children again is to join the bride program. Although raised fairly upper class, May generally seems to keep an open mind about the Cheyenne people in a very practical sense. She is not afraid to speak up or carve her own path (sometimes in the face of Cheyenne social customs,) and she will do what she needs to do to survive. In turn, many of the white women seem to look to May as their leader.
Although over time May seems to develop respect and reverence toward the Cheyenne people, she never stops referring to them as “savages” in her letters or journal entries. Yes, May is a woman of her time, but on the same note, Fergus has otherwise portrayed her as ahead of her time. This inconsistency distracted me.
Structurally speaking, I found the journal entries and letters to be quite limiting in terms of getting a sense of the larger scope and context of the world or the perspectives of other characters. Often a major event will happen and May will be recounting it to us later, not in real time, and thus some of the dramatic tension is lost in that time lapse.
As a white man both writing from a woman’s perspective and about an indigenous population, I have to mention the potential problematic areas. I couldn’t understand May’s attraction to Captain Bourke despite his low view of the Plains tribes (although in time she does push back on this a little bit) and her apparent devotion to the father of her children. I found the women characters to be tokenistic. While Fergus seems to have done research on the history, the Cheyenne people, and the geography, there were instances in which I felt slightly uncomfortable with some wording or depictions. Yes, some things in history just are uncomfortable and violent and you can’t sugar coat that, BUT there are some areas the author could have tweaked. For example, the author often uses the stereotypical image of the “noble or stoic savage.” Near the end of the book, there is a particularly grisly action the Cheyenne do against the Shoshone that didn’t seem accurate. While I know tribal warfare was certainly a real thing, this particular act of violence seemed like it may have been fabricated by the author. I tried to research it and couldn’t find anything…so if the author indeed made that up then it perpetuates this “savage” image. In addition to May never breaking her habit of saying “savages,” she often equates the Cheyenne with animals or participating in animalistic behavior. Another instance that could have been changed was the inclusion of the “drunk Indian” stereotype.
To be fair, Fergus does acknowledge in the Author’s Note that he is not writing from his perspective and not about people that are his own. He claimed that Native Americans have read his book and found the depictions to be both even and complex without relying on stereotypes or tropes, so you can take that as you will because one person does not represent an entire race or social group.
I couldn’t help but wonder why the author chose a type of alt-history scenario rather than fully focusing on a true sequence of events experienced by the Cheyenne. And what’s more, we should care about their story on their own without it having to be from a white person’s perspective, shouldn’t we?
Overall, there were quite a few problematic things in this novel, but viewed purely as an entertaining story, I’d say it was okay.

Grade: C