Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like. This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag). Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me. Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.
Review of One Thousand White Women : The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus
In 1854, a Cheyenne chief proposed that the U.S. government gift 1000 white women as brides for his warriors; in their matrilineal society, the children of these matches would belong to the whites and would be a means of assimilation into the white man’s world which otherwise held no place for Natives. Of course the request was denied, but this novel imagines what might have happened if it had not been.
May Dodd is the daughter of a prominent Chicago family who is in an insane asylum for promiscuity because she bore two children out of wedlock with a working-class man. Offered her freedom if she volunteers to be a bride for a Cheyenne warrior, she does and is chosen as a wife by Chief Little Wolf.
The novel is written in diary narration, with some letters as well, detailing her life and that of several other white women who volunteer for the program.
What is disappointing is the lack of information about the Cheyenne culture. What is included is vague and would be known by anyone who has done any rudimentary reading about Native American culture. The author added a bibliography but the research into Cheyenne customs and beliefs was sketchy. What a missed opportunity!
Another problem with the book is that May Dodd, the protagonist, is not a believable character. She is just too perfect; she can do virtually everything. Not only can she quote Shakespeare and speak French, but she becomes “competent in all aspects of skinning, butchering, scraping and tanning hides, drying meats, and cooking over the fire.” She marries not just a chief, but the “great Chief” whose “observance of his duties is monk-like . . . nearly Christ-like in its selflessness.” It is no wonder that hers “is by far the biggest belly” during pregnancy and that she is the first to give birth. In fact, her child is “a sacred child . . . the Savior.” Her journals become “a sacred tribal treasure” and the place of her death “a small shrine” where monks “say their liturgies and hold their contemplative silences.” Oh please!
May is not the only problem character. Captain John Bourke is inconsistent. To May he expresses his concerns about the brides for horses program and even reveals military secrets, but in the end says, “. . . I have my orders. I am a soldier in the service of my country” before he kills an unarmed youth.
The book’s strong suit is its detailing of American policy towards Natives. Any Indian ignoring government decrees, decrees made by a government which itself routinely broke treaties, was considered “’a hostile Injun.’” There are only two rules: “’One thing you can be sure of is that the whites ain’t goin’ to go away. And the other thing is that the Injuns ain’t goin’ to win . . . ‘” It’s a sad history lesson that deserves repeating.