Review: One Thousand White Women, Jim Fergus

This is another one from the archives of Books I Hated.  As far as I am concerned, I dodged a bullet with this book.  I got it second-hand one summer  but I’d very nearly bought it full price because the concept seemed interesting.  Apparently (true story) a Cheyenne Indian Chief suggested that one thousand white women marry amongst them to help the Cheyennes learn more about white culture and vice versa.  This request was rebuffed but Fergus imagines in his novel that it was granted, albeit with far fewer than one thousand and that it was chiefly the dregs of society who were invited to join; the mad, the unwed mothers, the ugly etc., etc.  The protagonist May Dodd was a woman who had two children outside of marriage and got committed by her family for so doing, so going to live with the Indians is her get-out-of-the-asylum-free card.  Supposedly, supposedly (and it’s a pretty tired plot device, let’s face it) this book comes from her recovered journals and it is so so unconvincing.  


“Recovered journals” oh the issues – first of all, I’m terrible at diarying and the whole writing frantically when being shot at thing that happens at the end so the reader gets the complete story to me seems like such a big pile of rubbish.  You would be cowering in terror, or looking for an escape route or you know – fighting back, that’s an idea, not freaking recording the drama of the experience for posterity.  That could come later – when you managed to survive!  It’s not even a good diary – it’s all about making herself look good without Fergus even having the grace to explore the idea of an unreliable narrator.  If you’re going to present a story in that format, you have to admit that they’re a bit of an unreliable narrator.  Eg. We Need To Talk About Kevin.  Otherwise – really – what’s the point of doing it?  Especially when your protagonist has done time in an institution for the mentally ill.


This is also a case of a truly badly written woman.  Now Fergus shouldn’t feel bad, he is not alone in doing this and in an odd way, this book really reminded me of Moll Flanders, another really deeply unconvincing female voice and another woman who is being somehow lauded as more liberated than her peers.  But Moll Flanders accidentally takes up with her brother at one point and is not a good role model, in the real world or in fiction.  May Dodd does not do much better, she meets some Army guy on the road to marrying a Cheyenne and spends the night with him because it’s like True Love at First Sight then marries the Chief of the Cheyenne tribe she’s Just That Cool and then nine months later, hello there sailor, she pops out a white baby rather than a Cheyenne one.  The Chief doesn’t bat an eyelid and gallantly calls it a miracle but then they go to war with another tribe and it all goes rapidly down hill and then Everybody Dies.  Except for May’s baby.  She lives.


Now, there are many convincing female heroines written by men.  In the last book I reviewed on here, Kathy in Never Let Me Go is a very convincing woman written by a man.  Additionally, Koomson’s Camryn in My Best Friend’s Girl is an example of an unconvincing woman written by a woman.  I am not making sweeping generalisations but May Dodd represents a very specific kind of unconvincing female character particular to male authors.  Somehow she is supposed to be Amazing and Awesome and Groundbreaking yet we hear all this through her and it doesn’t quite work.  I’m purely guessing based on my own instinct, but I have a feeling that most convincing female characters have moments of self-doubt or something along those lines which makes them believable as people.  May Dodd is not alone in this however, Jasper Fforde’s wonderful Thursday Next series has similar flaws in its protagonist, but Jasper Fforde makes up for this by having humour and very clever plot lines.  Fergus does not.  


There were oh so very many clichés in this novel too, if this is supposed to be a ‘recovered journal’ then it is surprising that there is not a single character who actually seems to be in any way realistic.  There’s the Oirish twins and then there’s the traumatised young girl who does not speak and who May is oh so kind to.  There’s the Ugly Swedish woman and the Racist Southern Belle (who has still agreed to marry a Cheyenne … that’s not inconsistent at all) and then the Saved Slave Woman.  There’s so blatantly a colour-by-numbers cast of ‘colourful characters’ yet Fergus has tried so hard to make sure that no demographic was missed out, I just found myself wondering when the lesbians would be represented because that was the only minority who wasn’t included.  They were all ‘types’ without having actual personalities for the reader to engage with, yet they all go on to have babies who fit their personality.  The twins marry twins and then give birth to twins la la la di da.  So not listening any more.  


And then there’s the anachronisms.  Now I don’t care if Fergus was a few years out with some of his Historic Events, it’s more the attitudes that are ridiculous.  May Dodd and her Soldier Boy agree that death was too good a punishment for the Racist Southern Belle’s slave-owner father.  Now in the modern age, everybody agrees that slavery is wrong (though it still happens) but way back when, people thought more in terms of property and injecting this kind of 21st century thinking into a historical ‘recovered journal’ is absurd, see also the mentions of ethnograph and agnosticism.  Then the whole episode where all the tribe’s women are kidnapped and raped by the other tribe was just really offensive, specifically the part where May is like so heroic that she begs to be raped again so that her stepdaughter won’t be.  If Jim Fergus is so wholly ignorant about sexual violence then he really shouldn’t have bothered to include it in his novel.  


This is a badly written book about an interesting idea.  Jim Fergus has clearly done his research about Cheyenne culture although the whole magic thing was a bit heavy for me but there is no way at all that anybody would read this and think ‘Gosh, this can’t be fiction, he must have actually recovered these journals from 18whatever’ and if the reader does not on some level engage with that, then they are not going to engage with May and think that she’s some kind of 19th century superwoman.  So, just don’t bother.  Read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee if you’re interested in Native American culture or read Witch Child by Celia Rees if you’re just dying to read a convincing ‘recovered journal’ from that period.  And yes, the latter is teen fiction but it is actually worth reading, unlike this.  

zero-stars
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One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
Published by St. Martin's Press on April 1st 2010
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 304
Goodreads
ISBN: 9781429938846


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4 thoughts on “Review: One Thousand White Women, Jim Fergus

  1. I totally agree with this review. The book is so bad (particularly the saintly, super-hero, May) that I couldn’t finish it. I got half-way through, gagging at the BS most of the time. I liked the idea and the plot could have been good, but the characterizations were awful.

    1. This was one of my very first ever reviews – I kind of cringe at it now but I’m really glad it spoke to you. I loathed this book, as you can probably tell. It’s a shame – I still think it could have been an interesting idea but the characterisation was abysmal. Thank you so much for confirming that I was not alone in my opinion, I’ve never met anyone else who read this book!

  2. I have only read a third of the book, but the problems mentioned in this review are already apparent. May’s character makes me wonder if Jim Fergus has ever talked with a woman about her experience of life – or rather, whether he has ever listened to a woman. The characters are stereotypes presented from a white male perspective. It comes across to me as more of a sexually voyeuristic tease (with more than a touch of sadism) than a sensitive or realistic account of the Cheyenne experience, despite the portrayal of their suffering.

    1. I kind of cringe at this review now – I wrote it nine years ago and I’ve grown up a lot since so I worry I was insensitive. But yeah – it was just such a bad book. He had no idea about women. I loathed that passage where May begged to be raped again to save her stepdaughter. And the diary-writing even when they were getting shot at was ludicrous. I don’t really know how this got published. And as a portrayal of the Cheyenne experience, I agree that it fails miserably. Thank you for sharing your thoughts – this was a truly strange book.

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