Book Review: One Thousand White Woman by Jim Fergus (1999)

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Review #67

In order to solve the increasingly violent clashes between the United States government and the Native American tribes of the Black Hills, a radical solution is proposed. The Cheyenne are a matrilineal society, meaning that the children belong to their mother’s tribe. The United States asks for volunteer women to marry into the Cheyenne, becoming part of their culture while also trying to introduce Western values within the Native Americans. May Dodd, who has spent a year wrongfully committed to a mental institution, joins a group of women volunteers venturing into the untamed prairies of the Midwest in hopes of finding a new and better life among the “savages”.

It’s clear that author Jim Fergus did an extensive amount of research on the time period and the Cheyenne people prior to writing this novel. Their language and culture are well represented in One Thousand White Woman. He represents the Cheyenne as a people with both good and bad aspects, and thankfully manages to avoid the “noble savage” trope. This is not Dances with Wolves, where the Native Americans are represented as being in perfect and peaceful communion with nature and their fellow man. The Cheyenne are capable of stunning violence as well as loving relationships, just like every society that has ever existed on Earth.

Since the Native Americans are presented as rather primitive I kept waiting for my other least favorite stereotype to rear its ugly head, that of the “white savior”. Also easily recognized in Dances With Wolves, the white savior brings logic and reasoning to a group of people who would would be utterly lost without them. I was pleasantly stunned to see that Fergus somehow evades this pitfall as well. The white woman are looking to be saved more than they are looking to save the Native Americans. Most of them have volunteered for the “Brides for Indian” program to escape horrible circumstances, and have little interest in converting their new husbands to a Westernized system of thinking. The few women that are depicted as attempting to convert or manipulate their Native husbands are seen as an annoying menace.

Considering that Fergus somehow managed to walk the incredibly thin tightrope between cliches, I thought I’d enjoy this book more than I actually did. However, there were a few problems with his writing style that took away nearly all my enjoyment from One Thousand White Women. The first is the Fergus seems to have been trying to break the world record for number of extraneous commas in a novel. This could be something that no one else notices and just annoys me, since I spend an above average amount of time correcting English grammar.

The second thing I found increasingly maddening was how Fergus chose to write his dialogue. He made the decision to italicize any words that are in an English dialect. For example:

“No you don’t, suh, you do not so much as touch my Feeern Louuuuise. Evah. You heah me? Nevah, evah do you lay a finger on my darlindawg

Ya’ve come to the right place, if you’re looking for remote, Broother Anthony that’s for shooore,” said Meggie Kelly greeting the fellow. “Me an’ Susie are a couple a good Catholic gooorls ourselves. An’ we’re ‘appy to ‘aveya along – right Susie?”

Is is just me, or is that the most infuriatingly distracting way to write dialogue? It annoyed me just to type it. Reading this book gave me an active headache, and towards the end of the novel I just started skipping sections that contained italics out of sheer spite. Had I known what I was in for, I would read this book on my eReader, which lacks the ability to italicize words. Although that still would have left the ridiculous drawn out vowels…

It’s rare that such small things are able to detract so greatly from my enjoyment of a book. But both of these issues were so prevalent and obvious that, despite its virtues,  I nearly put One Thousand White Women back on the shelf without finishing it.

My rating: 2/5

You can find One Thousand White Women here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

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