Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

Title: One Thousand White Women
Author: Jim Fergus
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Published: 1999
Pages: 320

Rating: 5 out of 10

In the 1870's, a Cheyenne chief traveled to Washington to make a proposition to Ulysses S. Grant himself: allow the Cheyenne a 'gift' of white women for them to marry, in order to integrate their cultures together. The request was, of course, denied, but what if it hadn't been? This is the idea that One Thousand White Women embellishes upon. It is the supposedly recovered journal of May Dodd, a young woman who has been unjustly imprisoned in a mental hospital by her own family. When she hears about the 'Brides for Indians' program, she jumps at the chance to escape her dismal existence and travel into a new life. Accompanied by an eclectic group of women also hoping to begin afresh, May becomes a part of the Cheyenne tribe. Though she can see herself enjoying this new lifestyle, the peace she has found in the prairie is interrupted by the spell new alcohol has cast over the Indian braves, and by the way May has been drawn to a handsome army Captain.

I just loved the new, fresh idea of this book. I have read books where white women marry or fall in love with Native Americans of course, but this one had a new twist.
I enjoyed it, but unfortunately, there were an array of things wrong with it, making it neutral for me.

Fergus was skilled at writing endearing characterizations, quaint and charmingly heartwarming in a style that reminded me of Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie. He takes on quite a few different accents to go with certain characters. At first they annoyed me, but after I got used to them, they added to the characterization. However, though his first-impression caricatures were very nice, most of the time they weren't able to carry through the rest of the book. Little quirks of physical characteristics seem to define most of the characters, and by the time the book is nearly over, Fergus has come to lean on them very heavily. For example, Gretchen is strong-armed and tough, Phemie is "graceful," Narcissa is strictly religious.
Our main character are narrator, May, was perhaps too modern, but overall, she was okay. The author never gave her any of the familiarizing little quirks that he gave so many of the other women, and I didn't like her as much as other, less important characters. May's ideas seemed a bit too suspiciously ahead of her time, such as her lack of religion, her feminist ideas, and other minor things such as her skill at horseback riding, and not sidesaddle!

Sometimes, a lack of thorough editing emerges. When remembering assaults at the mental hospital, May says "I prayed to kill him..." as the event was taking place. So... she is praying that God will kill the man? That God will let her kill him? That God will kill him later?
Another clunky sentence was: "When her part in the deception was discovered, as it surely would be, Martha knew that she faced..." Wait, has her 'part in the deception' been discovered yet or not? Because it "was" discovered, and then it "would be" discovered, and then Martha "faced..." instead of "would face..."
At another point, May says that her female companions "all know by now the reason of my incarceration." But how would they ever be able to find this out?

I also found quite a few disturbing aspects to this book. The author took up an armful of stereotypes and ran with them.
Gretchen, a German woman, was incredibly stereotypical. Because aren't all German women brutishly large in size, crass, blunt, strong-armed, and fond of beating up their poor husbands?
Phemie, the only African American woman in the group, could hardly be mentioned without having our attention called to her "black skin," her "lithe grace." At one point, another character even says that black people are fast runners. And look at that - it's true! Phemie is the fastest runner of them all! Another later says that all black people have natural rhythm. And would you believe it, there Phemie is dancing and swaying to the Indian music with the grace of a born dancer. It is also remarked that African Americans have good voices, and sure enough, you guessed it, Phemie has a beautiful, rich voice.
The religious woman, Narcissa, is the typical Bible-pounding conservative, offensive and annoying, that we see portrayed in so many other volumes.
A genteel lady from the deep South is given the obvious character of a self-righteous, extremely racist, whiskey-swilling prude.
Really, couldn't the author have been more inventive, and realized that many of his characterizations were in fact teetering on the edge of "typical" and falling into "offensive?"

Another disturbing thing I found was that very bad scenes in the book were later brushed off casually, without repercussions.
There is a horrific, drunken night, in which the Indian braves become intoxicated on liquor given to them by white men, and go about terrorizing the camp - beating wives, setting things afire, and raping women). A particular girl named Daisy is raped multiple times by a group of men. In another scene, a man assaults May and attempts to rape her. Another character later dies, and a man is at one point discovered of "buggering" little children.
All of these things are terrible - obviously.
Does the author see it this way?
Perhaps as he is writing them, but after that, they seem to vanish from his (and the character's) minds.
Most of these events happen and that is the end of them. A few paragraphs later, they are forgotten, without anything ever coming as a result of them. I couldn't believe it once I noticed the pattern.

Thirdly, I was disturbed by May's past being erased. She was placed into a mental hospital by her parents, for having children out of wedlock and living with a man to whom she was not married. Her children and lover are taken away, never to be seen again.
Though she tells us that she misses her children a couple times, I never quite believed her. Of course she misses them, but what kind of mother would just forget about her own children? Her parents do not live on the ends of the earth - they are still right there, in Chicago. Couldn't May have made some sort of effort to get back, or even visit, her children? Wouldn't she have placed seeing her children over everything else? I thought that in the end, they would be re-united. But just as the author erases his character's minds of other things, he so erases the memory of May's children from her memory, and from the story. This just struck me as sad, and wrong.

And lastly, I was a bit disquieted by the fact that May, while still mourning the loss of her partner/boyfriend, has sex with a man she has known for 2 days, while engaged (technically) to another man (one of the Indians she is traveling to wed). I rolled my eyes when May convinces herself that she is now in love with this man. Then she has sex with her husband, once she marries him, passionately and with much enjoyment. But is still in love with someone else. It just annoyed me a bit - mostly the fact that May thinks herself and the Captain a couple after two days in each other's company.

Many improbabilities, stretching the imagination just a bit too far, popped up through-out the story. To name a few, the author randomly places a black man in the Indian tribe (wow - so probable!) for Phemie to marry, because I suppose it would be so unthinkable for her to marry interracially. I can't imagine why, or how this could be considered likely, but it happens. Even worse is that two twins, Maggie and Susan, are married off to twin Indians. Well, of course! And May herself, our main character, is matched with the chief of the tribe.

So if there were so very many problems with One Thousand White Women, why did I still manage to enjoy it? Well, it was easy to get through. It was good light reading, while still maintaining that historical atmosphere that can often mask shallowness to being virtually undetectable. And despite all the racist and stereotypical characters, many of them were quite endearing, and I always sympathized with them and wished them all the best. There were some warm, funny scenes, and the author is admittedly quite good at making the reader like his characters. The pictures of the wild, beautiful prairie were well done.

In short, this is a book that should have been marvelous, but is reduced to average: and that's only if you can get past the uneasily glossed over offensive aspects of it.