In his Author’s Note, Jim Fergus explains that the seed of his novel, One Thousand White Women, derived from an “actual historical event” in 1854. At a peace conference, “a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief requested of the U.S. Army authorities the gift of one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors.” The Cheyennes were hoping that by intermarrying with whites, they stood a better chance of assimilating into the new America. According to Fergus, white authorities rejected the Cheyenne chief’s proposal, and the brides were not granted. However, One Thousand White Women re-imagines history, with President Grant trading one thousand white women from prisons and asylums in return for one thousand horses from the Cheyennes.
The novel is told in the form of journal entries written by May Dodd, an upper-class educated woman who has been forcefully admitted to a mental institution by her family for having children out of wedlock with a lower-class man. May sees the “Brides for Indians” program as an opportunity to escape her life in an asylum.
One Thousand White Women is rich in details about life on the prairie with the Cheyenne Indians. The author’s depictions of Cheyenne customs and rituals, based on research, are vivid and fascinating. Through May Dodd and her fellow white brides, we learn about the Cheyenne lifestyle in the Old West: from marriage rites, to hunting expeditions, to gender roles. The Indian communal lifestyle and bonds are in sharp juxtaposition to the growing individualism and imperialism of American pioneers. Indeed, there is a sentimental nostalgia to the diminishing community life of American Indians.
While I recommend One Thousand White Women for its cultural depictions and creative re-rendering of history, I don’t regard the novel as a great work of fiction. The voice of May Dodd and the other female characters were not credibly female. In other words, the author doesn’t quite do a believable job of portraying a woman’s perspective. This could be a minor detail but for the fact that the entire novel is written from a woman’s perspective.
Still, One Thousand White Women is worth the read, especially given that it’s a fast-moving story.