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Review: One Thousand White Women

 

One Thousand White Women, by Jim Fergus, is the fictionalized account of what happened when a Northern Cheyenne chief asked U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant to send his tribe one thousand white brides. According to the book’s prologue, Chief Little Wolf did indeed make this request – to U.S. Army authorities, not President Grant – and it was promptly denied. One Thousand White Women paints a portrait of what might have happened if the answer had instead been yes.

The story is told through the journal entries of May Dodd, who agreed to participate in the bride program to escape the insane asylum in which she had been unfairly imprisoned by her family. The first installment of brides travels from Chicago through Nebraska Territory to meet their soon-to-be Cheyenne husbands. The story that unfolds in the pages of May’s journal is one of struggles and triumphs, friendships formed, battles fought as the brides try to assimilate into the Cheyenne tribe and adapt to the rigors of living in the untamed West.

Despite the fact that the voice of May Dodd sometimes feels forced and doesn’t quite ring true, the stars of this story are most certainly the women – both the white brides and the Cheyenne wives and daughters of May’s new husband, Chief Little Wolf. The brides are a motley crew of women, from Irish immigrant twin sisters to a bitter and prejudiced Southern belle. These women feel like friends by the end of the book. I liked May’s counterparts more than I liked her.

Especially charming is the author’s rendering of the brides’ various accents. The Irish sisters Meggie and Susan: “Showt up Martha … If they were plannin’ to kill us, they’d a doon so by now.” Swiss Gretchen: “Yah, you got a goot man there, May!” And Daisy Lovelace, a girl from the south if ever there was one: “It belonged to my dear departed Motha … Ah was to wear this gown myself, when Ah married Mr. Wesley Chestnut of Albany, Georgia. But after Daddy lost everything in the wah, Mr. Chestnut had a sudden change of heart, if you know what Ah mean.”

At the heart of this yarn is the sad truth of what happened when two cultures collided. As one character aptly observed, there wasn’t enough room for the natives and the whites in this country, the whites weren’t going away, and the natives weren’t going to win this one.

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