Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book Review: One Thousand White Women

The author states that the germ for this novel grew out of "an actual historical event: in 1854 at a peace conference at Fort Laramie, a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief requested of the U.S. Army authorities the gift of one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors. Because theirs is a matrilineal society in which all children born belong to their mother's tribe, this seemed to the Cheyenne to be the perfect means of assimilation into the white man's world." In attempting to determine whether such a suggestion ever really was made, I could not find conclusive evidence on-line to either support or detract from the assertion. Regardless, such a contingency of brides never really entered the Cheyenne tribal fold, so the novel is an entirely fictitious answer to the question of "what if the government had indeed supported this idea by sending a covert group of women to meet the demands of the Cheyenne?" Many great novels spring from such "what if" questions.

It is quite clear that the author immersed himself in research for this book and has presented an authentic vision for life on the prairies in this difficult time for Native Americans. It is presented as the journals of one May Dodd, a woman whose own parents had her institutionalized for loving a man they felt was beneath her, thus branding her "promiscuous," which was ample cause for incarceration in a mental institution at that time. The pages of the book purport to chronicle her adventure as she volunteers (in exchange for freedom from the insane asylum) to participate in the "Brides for Indians" initiative. She tells of the hardships, the bonds of friendship formed, and the love interest discovered on her journey to the Indians. She is torn between two worlds - the world of the white man, where she has suffered betrayals and atrocities, and the world of the Cheyenne tribe, where beauty lies alongside hideous brutality. I appreciated that the author chose to cast each side with positive and negative attributes, not glorifying one side or the other, but revealing human weaknesses and strengths equally.

The book offers up much fodder for discussion (making it an excellent book club choice): Is it believable to think that a government could support such an underhanded mission? Who were the real savages in the story? To what depths do both sides stoop in this battle for ownership and dominance over the land? Is May Dodd a hero or victim? What role does religion play in society? or restated, Why does every culture, including savage ones, construct some system of beliefs concerning a higher power? Moreover, how much missionary effort is, in actuality, a thinly-veiled exercise in ethnocentrism? To what extent was the story believable or unbelievable?

For my part, I would have to say that at the beginning I was merely slogging along because it was a book club selection, but toward the middle, I began to really care about the characters and feel an investment in what might or might not happen for them. The beginning tended to drag a bit for me and several of the characters felt like stereotypes. Moreover, it was clearly written by a man because I would find it difficult to believe that a woman would have filled a journal intended for the eyes of her offspring with titillating details about her sex life or graphically represented episodes of rape. Really? Still, overall, it felt like a mostly worthwhile read and I would say that I got some positive things from the book, if not just a chance to immerse myself in what life might have been like in those times and regions. It would certainly be of interest to those who are interested in fictionalized accounts of Indian/Caucasian interactions based on historical research. And again, kudos to the author for coming up with a plausible and enticing "what if" question.


Amy Sorensen said...

I LOVED this book!

Wendy said...

I LOVED that you let me know you loved it. I so rarely get feedback on my book reviews. It's always good to hear the impressions and reactions of others. We had a great discussion about it.