Monday, May 02, 2011

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd

Alternate history, that literary genre in which an historical event is tweaked, removed, or reversed, can be interesting.  It is always great fun to play the “what if game” with the actual events of our shared past: “what if the South had won the Civil War,” “what if the Normandy invasion had failed,” or “what if John Kennedy had not been assassinated?”  Much fascinating fiction has originated from those and similar questions.  Jim Fergus plays a more subtle version of the game in One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd.”  He wonders what might have happened if, in 1875, President Grant and Little Wolf, chief of the Cheyenne nation, had agreed to exchange one thousand white women for an equal number of Indian horses.

Grant is at first shocked and disgusted by Little Wolf’s proposition, but he has to admit that the idea makes sense.  Since, in the Cheyenne culture, children belong to the tribes of their mothers, Little Wolf sees the “Brides for Indians” program as the best chance to assimilate his people peacefully into the white culture that seems destined to overwhelm his own.  Grant, on his part, hopes that the women can influence their husbands into accepting, or at least tolerating, white ways and religions to the point that open warfare with the tribe can be avoided.  Thus is born the secret “Brides for Indians” program, a program that will require Grant’s people to scour mental institutions, debtors’ prisons, and other jails and prisons in search of the one thousand women needed for Grant to meet his part of the bargain. 

May Dodd, resident of a Chicago mental institution, is one of the first women recruited to go west to meet her new Indian husband.  May has been institutionalized by her father for the unpardonable sin of bearing two children out of wedlock to a man beneath her social status.  To her father’s way of thinking, no woman in her right mind could do such a thing – his daughter has to be insane.  Rather than spend the rest of her life locked up, May, ever the adventurer, leaps at the chance to regain her freedom by becoming an Indian bride for the required two-year commitment. 

Author Jim Fergus
One Thousand White Women is told largely in the words of a series of journals May begins to record almost the moment she decides to make her break for a new life.  Through these journals, we meet May’s colorful traveling companions and learn of their adventures and hardships as they begin their new lives as wives of men with whom they have so little in common.  The women, although they will suffer the hardships of winter encampment, inter-tribal warfare, kidnappings, and one horrible night when their men succumb to the evils of alcohol, find that they are learning as much about what is good and proper in society as they are teaching.  But is it all too late to save the Cheyenne from what the army has planned for them?

The audio version of One Thousand White Women is read by Laura Hicks who does a remarkable job with the various accents and languages she has to deal with: two of the characters are Irish, one is Swiss, one is from the Deep South, one is an ex-slave, and some are French.  Hicks handles all of these accents well, in addition to voicing a believable version of the Cheyenne language.  This one should appeal to a variety of readers, among them: alternate history fans, western fans, and those who enjoy feminist novels with especially strong female characters.

Rated at: 5.0


  1. Thanks for joining in the Western Reading Challenge. You're first. I'm just about half way through Outlaw myself. I do hope to read one western per week this month. Since I set the whole thing up I think I should over achieve.

    This novel sounds very similar to what actually did happen in the early days of the U.S. Plenty of colonial women and men ended up living with Native American tribes as a result of kidnappings and wartime prisoners. I've heard that most of them were not all that anxious to return to white society when they had the chance.

  2. I'm also participating in C.B.'s Western challenge so I came to see what your book is all about. It's all new to me - the book and the alternate history idea - but I've always loved asking What If? This idea of a thousand white women being exchanged for horses is going to whirl around in my head for a while. I'm sure I'll end up reading this book. Good choice for this challenge.

  3. James, I'm hoping to get another western in this month...but if not, they are part of my regular reading anyway. Westerns were heavily represented in my teen age reading, and I still enjoy them.

  4. Margot, I'm willing to bet that you'll enjoy One Thousand White Women if you read it. It's written from the point of view of the women who joined the Cheyenne tribe as part of the experiment...and it's fun to see how the Indians change the women as much as the women change the Indians (the Indians change the women maybe even more, and in more fundamental ways of thinking). Good stuff.