To write an epic tale of the plains Indians in which the white men are the evil aggressors and the Indians the valiant victims would be so easy. Jim Fergus does not take that path when he tackles the topic in One Thousand White Women. Fergus's rendering of the dispute between settlers and natives shines because of his nuanced sense of the difference between immorality and amorality--and his self-consciousness about how hard readers and settlers alike find it to keep this distinction top of mind.
One Thousand White Women takes as its premise the true request of a Cheyenne leader for one thousand white women to teach them the ways of the white man. In reality, this request shocked Grant and his advisors so thoroughly that all talks broke down. In the novel, Grant publicly refuses but privately goes forward with the project, accepting volunteers and blackmailing women from asylums and prisons to fill out the rosters. One of these women is May Dodd who chose life with a "savage" over unjust imprisonment as a lunatic. Her journal of the year the women spent with the Cheyenne makes up the pages of the story.
May leads the women in her group, giving them courage and pushing the boundaries of what women are allowed to do. Her belief in equality between the sexes urges her to argue, too, for the equality among races. She rails against falling into a missionary role, which takes as its premise the superiority of the white way. At the same time, she suffers from her own biases, having been raised in an upper middle class home with all the "breeding" such a life requires. When her own reason fails, she adopts the position of the others: Phemie, the freed slave; Gretchen, the doughy Swiss immigrant; and Sarah, the silent child who learns the Cheyenne language within weeks of the women's arrival.
In the tradition of the best domestic novels, One Thousand White Women takes seriously the role that domesticity and family alliances play in shaping political decisions. Beyond that, it tells a gripping story and reminds the reader of the benefits and dangers of American exceptionalism.
Posted by Mille Feuille