I only read Jim Fergus‘s One Thousand White Women because a friend whose opinion I value recommended it. Well, that was an inspired recommendation as I read the book over Thanksgiving weekend and could not put it down.
The premise of the novel is quite interesting. It is inspired with the historical fact that in 1654, a Cheyenne Chief suggested to the Army authorities that the Cheyennes be given one thousand white women to facilitate the assimilation of Cheyennes into white society through marriage with Cheyenne men. Indeed, the Cheyenne’s kinship structure is matrilineal. Therefore, the children born of these unions would be part of the white society. You can imagine the reception to such a request.
Fergus situates his story in 1875, imagining what would have happened if the US government had agreed to the Cheyenne Chief’s request. So, ok, the US government sends a first "batch" of women… but which women? Certainly not women from "decent" families, right?
The narrative structure of the novel is organized around the journals of May Dodd, one of the women who "volunteered" to be part of the program. May Dodd chose to participate so that she could get out of the asylum where her family had locked her up because she had moved in and had had children out of wedlock with a man from a lower social class than hers. May Dodd comes from a wealthy Chicago family. So, she is institutionalized on grounds of "promiscuity" (the use of psychiatry to "correct" deviant women… that is, those who won’t conform or challenge the patriarchal order is also an interesting aspect of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Changeling ). It is in the asylum that she and other women (also locked up mostly for lack of conformity to the norms of upper class, Victorian, gender roles) receive the visit of government officials giving them the choice between "marrying a savage" or remaining locked up. For May Dodd, it’s not even a choice. She signs up for the program.
During the railroad trip West towards Fort Laramie, Nebraska, we discover the other women who came to the program through other accidents of life: the racist Southern Belle whose father lost his wealth after the civil war and was left at the altar by her disappointed suitor, the evangelist who thinks she’ll bring civilization (i.e., Christianity) to the savages, the traumatized girls who does not speak, the Irish criminal twins, the African American "princess" who will never again be a slave, etc. It is a very fascinating cast of characters, all with their live stories, their typical wounds inflicted by a patriarchal society. Their reactions to the new society they have to integrate make for a great (sometimes quite funny) read.
A large segment of the book is dedicated to the trip West, first to the Fort, then, to the Cheyenne camp. Another is dedicated to the progressive assimilation of these women into Cheyenne society, and their discovery that "savage life " is not what they thought it would be. Quite a bit of culture shock, and a gradual abandonment of ethnocentrism in favor of a more open view of their new culture.
As May Dodd states in her journals,
"Frankly, from the wat I have been treated by the so-called ‘civilized’ people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages."
As for the last part of the book, it is the heartbreaking ending to the "experiment". Remember, this is a story of late 19th century Cheyennes dealing with the white society… it can’t end well. Broken promises and betrayals on both sides lead to a catastrophic conclusion.
Even though the reader knows it’s fiction, the story feels real. It is actually easy to forget that this is a story told by a woman, but written by a man. Fergus makes these journals very believable.
Like I said, the book is a page turner, with fascinating description of Cheyenne life from the point of view of someone completely unsocialized and unprepared to accept it. I also enjoyed the different threads created by the narratives of the other women and their adaptation into their new society. This enriches the story and gives it more density than just focusing on one character.
I have already ordered my copy of Jim Fergus’s other novel, The Wild Girl.