One Thousand White Women
by Jim Fergus
I fear I may be the last woman standing who hasn’t read the popular novel by Jim Fergus, One Thousand White Women. I’ve read the reviews, heard the scuttlebutt among friends, but it seemed too much of a good thing, considering I’d read Thirteen Moons and Color of Lightening over the past year or so. But read it I finally did.
The novel’s subtitle is in the tradition of good historical fiction: The Journal of May Dodd. Starting in 1875 we follow May Dodd in her sanctioned “escape” from an insane asylum where her family had imprisoned her for promiscuous behavior. May’s crime? The wealthy Chicago socialite fell in love with a man below her social station, found herself pregnant, and, subsequently lived with him. Fergus gives us enough description of life in the asylum for the reader to understand that if May wasn’t insane when she arrived at the mental institution, she soon would be.
After searching a bit, it seems the story is entirely fiction, although some Internet sources purport that an Indian leader did indeed suggest an exchange of white brides for horses. I doubt the xenophobic sensitivities of 19th century white Americans, however, would ever permit this to come about.
As I expected (with some disappointment, I must admit), the women, all social outcasts of some sort, find personal freedom and often fulfillment with their Indian families in a fairytale type of way. May Dodd is often puzzled by the customs of her new husband Little Wolf, and she sometimes asserts the values of an independent white woman in ways that probably wouldn’t have been so blithely accepted (for instance, swimming with the men in the morning and riding next to her husband on the trail). Fergus makes the tribe’s polygamy seem reasonable, and May comes to hold dear the companionship of Little Wolf’s other wives. It was all a bit too pat for me.
That was my biggest frustration with this novel. I think romanticizing the life of Native Americans is just as reprehensible as demonizing them. Paulette Jiles presented a very different picture of white Indian wives in her Color of Lightening.
The problem lies in determining the truth.