When I first began reading One Thousand White Women, I didn’t think I was going to like it. I was unconvinced, under the circumstances, by its narrator’s facetious tone, and I felt that the way some characters told her their deepest secrets on first meeting was unrealistic. I was also afraid that most of the characters would turn out to be caricatures of real women. However, I eventually changed my mind from my first impressions.
This novel is a completely fictional imagining of what would have happened if an actual event had taken place. During an 1854 peace conference, a Cheyenne chief suggested that the United States trade 1000 white women for horses, reasoning that this assimilation of cultures would ultimately result in understanding between the two. This suggestion was indignantly received, but Fergus’s novel imagines what would have happened if the experiment were tried.
In 1874, May Dodd is one of those women. She has decided to participate to escape from a mental institution to which her family committed her after she had children outside of marriage with a man they found socially inferior. With her on the train west is a colorful group of women, some of them fleeing ruined lives and others hoping for a family.
On the way out, May falls in love with Captain John Bourke, in charge of their escort from Fort Laramie. Unfortunately, Captain Bourke is engaged to be married, and May feels herself pledged to the mission, which has been presented to the women as a patriotic one.
May is chosen as the bride for Little Wolf, a respected chief of the Northern Cheyenne. He is an older man with two current wives, but he is a man May can respect.
Fergus is strongest in his descriptions of the western landscape and life among the Cheyenne. As I mentioned, at first all the women seem like types, but eventually I came to care for most of the major characters, from the timid Martha to the African-American Amazon, Phemie. And the major Cheyenne characters are sympathetically depicted.
Of course, we know what kinds of things were going on in the West at this time (and if you don’t, I recommend Dee Brown’s excellent and affecting Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee). This novel is a sensitive and powerful depiction of the native American life and struggles of the time.