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One Thousand White Women: The Journals Of May Dodd (1999)

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd (1999)
3.86 of 5 Votes: 1
0312199430 (ISBN13: 9780312199432)
st. martin's griffin
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One Thousand White Women: The Journal...
One Thousand White Women: The Journals Of May Dodd (1999)

About book: Once upon a time, there was an Cheyenne chief called Little Wolf and a drunken US President named Ulysses S. Grant. After Grant made a horrible fool of himself by being a white guy, Little Wolf was like, "Look, we're matrilineal, so why not just let us have some white ladies to marry and procreate with? We don't even need cool white ladies. You can give us the nice ugly ones. And the pretty crazy ones. But not the crazy ugly ones because that seems like a bit much." And thus the Brides for Indians project, or BFI, was born. Except not really. It was apparently proposed, but seeing as the US government was A) not really inclined to marrying its women--not even the crazies and the uglies--off to a nation fighting a losing battle and B) largely made up of bigots who wanted to exterminate the Indians vs. procreating with them, the BFI project didn't exactly pan out. The question Fergus asks is--you know. What if it did? And what if we found the journals of a super sassy lady who happened to marry a Cheyenne chief? Thus, "One Thousand White Women" is born. The Good Look, you gotta admit: this is a pretty sweet premise. To me, at least. I may be biased, though, as the adoption of Caucasians by Indian tribes--particularly Caucasian females--is one of my pet interests at the moment. Same goes for the lives of Indian women. Also, much of "One Thousand White Women" takes place in a stretch of America that I used to call home (ish) so... yes. I'm biased.Long story short--good premise, decent writing. And by decent I mean, "the actual prose quality isn't bad". Doesn't mean it's especially good. The BadAnd that decent prose? It works structurally, but logistically speaking... So much of this book doesn't read like a journal. There's a lot of word-for-word dialogue, which normally I would be able to let go, but--May also seems to insist on giving each "foreign" or "Southern" character an accent That doesn't ring true, especially in cases of Southern Belle Daisy Lovelace--yes, that is her name--and Swiss immigrant Gretchen Fathauer--yes, that is her name.Let me try to think of more things that are less "ugly" and just--"bad". Oh, yeah. That ending. Not to spoil anything, but "One Thousand White Women" has the sort of ending that makes you think the author had a "Dances with Wolves" type of movie in mind. Or something. It was totally unearned, and leaves the reader feeling like Fergus thought he had the next Great American Novel on the horizon.Here's a spoiler alert: he didn't.The UglyOkay. So we have a dude writing the tales of women in a pre-feminist setting.Audience: Ooooh! *winces*The odds are already... not in his favor. Might I add that this is a WHITE dude writing the tales of women AND Indians in a pre-feminist, Manifest Destiny-era setting?Audience: OH SNAP! *eye twitch*Yeah. It turns out about as well as you'd expect.Lemme talk about what I know best first: lady business. Fergus's mid-nineteenth century women, particularly our narrator, are about as real as Pamela Anderson's tits. But while I have nothing against Pamela Anderson's tits and wish them on their merry way, Fergus executes something actively offensive.It feels like he thinks he's writing women well. But these ladies barely fit a twenty-first century setting, let alone a story that takes place right after the end of the Civil War. Fergus is a rape-happy kind of author, which is problematic in itself, particularly when that rape is so repeatedly written by a male. To make matters worse, his ladies barely react. May Dodd is raped repeatedly during her year and a half stint in an asylum; yet she sort of mentions it, goes on her merry way. And that's less than fifty pages into the book.But oh, there's more. I just don't want to spoil it for you. Because I know that if there's one thing I and my fellow ladies love in our fiction, it's some good, old-fashioned sexual assault. Especially the kind that's repeated. Over and over. Luckily, our heroines bounce back with next to no issues. Phew. (The one woman who does act traumatized after being raped is an antagonist and treated as a sort of pathetic wimp.)All that aside, there's just so much that doesn't seem authentic. I can buy that women like May would be willing to marry Indians to get out of a bad situation. I can't buy that May--before the novel's events--was willing, as a fairly aristocratic young woman, to live in sin. She says that she has no inclination towards marriage. She's also agnostic. Um, what? All of this happens with little soul searching. And that would be okay. If she'd been raised in a culture where this was at all acceptable.There's also the problem of sexuality (of the consensual kind). One young lady loses her virginity doggy style--a style she'd never heard of--to a man she didn't know--didn't speak the language of--and acts like this is the best. thing. ever. Again, in the nineteenth century. Also, she's white was raised in the typical white society of the day. Um???Oh, but of course. These ladies were written by men, and are thus somewhat wish-fulfillment-y. Don't ya love that?I feel as if I've written enough about Fergus's inability to write women. What about his inability to write other ethnicities and cultures?Okay, okay. Fellow white people first. Because you'd at least think that Fergus could get his white people somewhat right. Right? Nope.Swiss Gretchen says a lot of "I yam" and "de" and she's basically an ugly milkmaid who talks about her big titties a lot. The Irish twins Meggie and Susie are former prostitutes and general betters and their last name is Kelly and OH. Southern belle Daisy Lovelace--remember that name?--says racial slurs all the time and boozes it up and... Poor man's Blanche DuBois, is that you?But, as usual, the non-white people get the short end of the stick. The token black lady--the novel's title and Little Wolf's specifications of white women notwithstanding--is the daughter of an African princess who runs around naked and "chuckles" a lot. She will be a slave to no man. Never again! So she somehow convinces the Indians, who valued the separate-but-equal system of gender roles greatly, to let her do a man's work. (Never mind that woman's work was not considered slavery by the Indians, but whatever.) As if that wasn't stereotypical enough for you, we're given the Cheyenne. Little Wolf is the strong silent type whose relationship with May gets basically zero development. He's basically a noble savage except for when he drinks whiskey. (The whiskey-swilling main villain of the novel is half-white, half-Indian. Was that supposed to make a point, or does it totally defeat it? I'm not sure. Maybe Fergus isn't, either.) Wow. That's... original.Noble savagery abounds. The Indians don't know how to have non-doggy-style sex or kiss or anything. But wow, they sure do make nice buckskin dresses. And greasepaint. I'm just waiting for them to tell May to paint with all the colors of the wind.And hey! They're letting Helen Flight, the bird-obsessed artist whose name is totally not significant, paint shit! Wow, Indians. You sure are cool.Towards the end of the novel, May manages to pull the wool over their eyes--Little Wolf's in particular--as all the white people nod knowingly. Because remember: Indians are naive creatures. They don't know what's best for themselves. They only know magic. And dancing. And doggy style. White people know the important stuff.This seems like a minor thing to mention, but May, who is totally gorgeous and has the pretty Indian name of Swallow while her friend gets Falling Down Woman or whatever, has this brief fling with a white dude that is supposed to be a passionate romance? But he's a total douche who barely gets any age time and... it's not? I don't know if that had a point either.The VerdictHell. I'm not sure if the book did.

I keep forgetting to review this book. I think because I'm not quite sure what to make of it. The next time you're browsing in a bookstore pick it up just to read the kick-ass premise in the prologue. You probably don't need to bother with the rest. I didn't find it as trite or cliche as other readers. It's just that you can tell the experiment is doomed from the beginning and the storytelling isn't so revelatory that it's worth investing yourself in the poor characters.Other thoughts.1. I did like the narrator, she was convincingly plucky and intelligent. And tragic and just a little crazy. This is what kept me reading.2. I don't know how realistic it was, but I didn't find it overly cliche. Which is weird because I'm usually very oversensitive to ethnic cliches. Well, yeah, so the one black woman was embarassingly cliche. Like, she sings and dances and goes Back to Africa worse than that Different Strokes episode where Arnold and Willis play the drums and change their names. She starts wearing a loincloth and hunting as a warrior. Yeah.Amongst the white women there were plenty o cliches, with annoying dialect to prove it. (The bawdy Irish twins, the homely Swiss girl, the racist Southern belle, etc.) But I think it was sort of the point that they were clinging to those cliche identities and the experience brings out a greater depth in them all. As for the Cheyenne, we see a myriad of personalities and groups within the tribe. A vivid description of everyday life and society. I didn't get a "noble savage" vibe at all. The white women adopt, reject, or compromise various aspects of their adopted culture and families based on personal preference and compatibility, not through any ideal of living a simpler life. Most of them are escaping from their past and certainly find their "Indian" lives to be freer, but the moral seems to be that life is harsh everywhere.3. The most fascinating aspect of this book was seeing how complicated the issues of racialization and identity became for everyone involved with a people on the verge of genocide or assimilation.4. For the most part this book seemed well researched and historically convincing. But, man, poor Phemie falls victim to ridiculous stereotyping again. The second she is introduced she offers up this elaborate backstory that sounds like someone skimmed the back cover of Roots at Blockbuster. Don't they have editors around here? Please tell me SOMEONE else remembers that the slave trade ended in 1808? (Phemie can't be more than 25 in 1875, yet she claims her mother was taken from deepest Africa and had her at a young age.) Ok, but surely everyone knows that Civil War began in 1861, making escape to Canada unlikely and unnecessary? (Phemie claims to have escaped a cruel master 10ish years before 1875, no mention of the war.) Sigh.4. Damn, the ending is DEPRESSING.5. I feel the need to read some actual historical Indian lit by actual historical Indians.
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Dear May Dodd,I received your letter of 20 January 1876, accompanied by portions of your journal, and, in short, I'm not falling for it. They sound like they were written sometime in the 1990s, and probably by a man. While I found many reasons to come to this conclusion, the biggest giveaways were your obsession with penis size and the fact that your signature was followed by an AOL e-mail address.Sincerely,Disgruntled ReaderOK, that was a bit harsh and if for some reason Mr. Fergus is reading this review, I want to say to him: I didn't completely dislike "One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd," and I give you credit for trying to adopt the viewpoint of not just a woman, but a woman from more than a century ago. That took balls. Unfortunately for your readers, those balls weren't backed up by brains.While Fergus obviously did a lot of research to learn about the culture of the Cheyenne nation and other Indian tribes -- he even shows his work by giving us a bibliography -- he completely fails to transport his readers back to an earlier time. That's the most basic requirement of any historical novel. Few pages go by in which Fergus doesn't attribute to May Dodd words and ideas that would be completely foreign to any woman living in the 1870s -- even a woman as progressive as May is supposed to be. For most of the novel, May sounds less like a 19th century woman of any background or educational level, and more like a Volvo-driving Web designer from San Francisco who's on her way to pick up her daughter at soccer practice, has to drop her off at the ex-husband's for his weekend visitation, and then, before going to her newly purchased fixer-upper in the Mission District, plans to stop by the polling place to vote for Dianne Feinstein.Small examples: May repeatedly refers to another character as an "amateur ethnographer," describes herself as being "agnostic" when it comes to religion, characterizes herself as being as "big as a house" when pregnant, and says that a woman who ends her pregnancy "aborted" the baby. These are simply not words or ideas that any woman living in the 1870s would use, and especially not as casually as she does. This may sound like nitpicking, but there's never a point in the whole book in which even the most forgiving reader could honestly say to herself, "This can't possibly be a novel. He must have actually found May Dodd's lost journals from the 1870s." And yet that's what we the readers are apparently expected to do, at least according to Fergus's "Reading Group Gold" notes in the back of the edition I read.There are other annoyances too. Many of the characters are given cutesy names that reflect their personalities and interests. The woman who studies and paints birds is named, unsurprisingly, Helen Flight, while a self-important and prudish character is, naturally, Narcissa White, and a dainty Southern belle is, wait for it, Daisy Lovelace. And, aside from giving characters lines and viewpoints that feel anachronistic, Fergus also makes passing reference to things that simply didn't exist in the 1870s. Hey, Jim, there was no Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra in 1875. Even the city's earliest such orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, wasn't formed until 16 years later. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) If you're trying to really make us believe we're reading a recovered journal, this is not the way to do it. Why not just give the Indian chief a BlackBerry, and President Ulysses S. Grant a subscription to Us Weekly?All right, I've been nasty enough. There is a reason I gave "One Thousand White Women" two stars instead of one. Aside from the anachronisms, the book is reasonably well-written, and the story is compelling and relatively fast-paced. That makes up for some of the novel's faults. But you know what would have made the novel ten times better? Given that we're supposed to be reading the journals of a woman who's first diagnosed as insane, and then becomes a bride to an Indian chief under a secret government program, why come right out and reveal to your readers that she wasn't actually crazy and really did join a Cheyenne tribe? Why not leave it an open question, and let your readers decide for themselves whether the program was real or May Dodd was just nuts? That, perhaps, would make for a better novel.On a side note, it was interesting to read Fergus's novel right after finishing Daniel Defoe's "Moll Flanders," and less than a year after reading Larry McMurtry's "Telegraph Days." What do the three have in common? Each novel is told from a woman's point, was written by a man, and focuses on a woman who are far more liberated and self-directed than her female contemporaries. While McMurtry's book was not a lot better than Fergus's (though it was a lot more fun), neither of them should even be mentioned in the same sentence as "Moll Flanders." (Oops.) It's impossible to imagine either one being widely read almost three centuries from now, as Defoe's 1722 novel is today.
1.5 stars.This is another one of those disappointing books where the idea is really neat and the execution is incredibly bad. The main issue is how flawed the writing of the characters is. For one thing, he seems to confuse people having accents for people having personalities. There are Irish accents, southern accents, German accents. And he WRITES OUT the accents, which is supremely annoying. (He also sporadically writes things in French and then doesn't translate them.) On top of that, there's every cliche in the book: the pedophile priest, the hypocritical evangelical, the magical negro. May's husband, Little Wolf, is barely in the damn book. He's like a shadowy figure with no personality or impact on the book whatsoever. May says over and over that she feels integrated into the Cheyenne society, but we the readers never feel it. Finally, you just don't CARE about any of the characters. I had no emotional connection or reaction to anything that happened, ever.After reading all my friends' negative reviews, I was hoping it would at least be fun terrible and trashy. But no, it was just pathetic terrible and trashy.It's rounded up to 2 stars and is given 1.5 stars simply because it doesn't quite reach the unreadable monstrosity of the likes of The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel.
I like historical fiction. I appreciate writers who take the time to research their stories well. I like to think that I'm catching up on some of the history I missed as the same time as enjoying a good read. I like journals and memoirs. And I jump at the chance to see history from the perspective of those who are usually written out of the history books. So I was quite enthusiastic when I heard about this novel which is written in the form of the journal of a nineteenth-century Yankee woman living among the Cheyenne.But it's not well written. Fergus may be a good journalist, and I can imagine him in his study, surrounded by charts showing the timeline of significant events of the period, trying to incorporate them into his story. But he's not much of a novelist, and he doesn't even begin to inhabit the voice of his protagonist. May Dodd is never convincing; not as a woman, not as a gently reared member of the upper class, not as the survivor of abduction and incarceration in a brutal insane asylum, not as a rape survivor. There's no depth to her emotions, her actions are incongrous and even her language seems stilted, and worse, anachronistic.The other characters are no better, a range of stereotypes from the alcoholic faded Southern belle to the Amazonian former slave. Jeez! I guess you can tell that I'm somewhat disappointed by this. I don't usually bother to say much about books I didn't like, but this one annoys me because it could have been so much better. I bet it was a best seller, too! Ah well.
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