Insomnia is an awful, horrendous, terrible, disastrous, abominable thing. I hate it. In fact, to date, there are only two physical conditions I’ve experienced that I hate more: severe nausea, and accidentally wearing cloth shoes in the rain. But, alas, I’ve been rather insomnimatic for the last several nights. While this condition hasn’t been so great for me in life-life, in my book-life it’s been rather fortuitous. On Thursday night, or rather very early Friday morning, I had been lying awake for what seemed millenia, so I decided I might as well put the time to good use and read. In the dark, I picked a book off my shelf at random and curled up on my couch with a book light. I feel asleep reading One Thousand WhiteWomen: The Journals of May Dodd that night, and the next, until finally I stayed up Saturday night because I simply had to finish this amazing novel.
May Dodd is a Chicago socialite who has been committed to an insane asylum by her wealthy family for loving a man below her station. She has resigned herself to living the remainder of her life in this monotonous prison, when government agents arrive at the institution with an interesting opportunity. Willing to do anything to be free, and hopefully someday reunite with her two small children, May joins a secret government program whereby she and a group of fifty or so other women, the first of a promised thousand, travel West to the Nebraska territory to become the wives of Cheyenne warriors. Reported by her family to have died in the asylum around the time of her departure, May’s journals are the only clue for her modern-day descendents to the truth of her amazing adventure.
“We will look back on this life that we have now, ” Little Wolf said softly, “and we will think that no people on earth were ever happier, were ever richer; we have good lodges and plenty of game; we have many horses and beautiful possessions and I am not yet prepared to give this up to live in the white man way. Not yet. Another fall, another winter, perhaps one more winter…then we shall see.” -page 341
Though May Dodd and her journals are fictitious, Jim Fergus has done his best to portray an accurate picture of what life would have been had a white woman become part of the Cheyenne Tribe in 1875, in the last months of their freedom. Fergus portrays the Cheyennes well, neither as noble savages nor as evil heathens, but as people, just like you and me. Their culture is filled both with breathtaking beauty- a respect for and harmony with nature, a love of family- and horrible brutality- they mercilessly murder the children of their enemies. And the white man? He reads Shakespeare, makes beautiful art, complex cities, and he also massacres tribes of Native Americans who do not move to their appointed reservations on time.
I was deeply moved by this book, by the journals of this woman who never really lived, but who brought me a deeper understanding of this period of our country’s history. I felt the flaws of my own people deeply, was fascinated by native culture, cheered as the women fell in love with their new husbands and grew their new babies, cried as the solider’s raided the Indian camp and for the women caught between both cultures, and in May’s case, two loves- her Cheyenne warrior chief, and a brave army captain. I loved the ways the women invented to both assimilate and retain their identities. I wanted to travel the prairies with May and Little Wolf as they made this, the last great Cheyenne summer migration. I wanted to know what it felt like to sleep in a tipi and snuggle into a bed of buffalo skins, and I wanted to snuggle those little Indian babies with their cute, literal names.
“I feel that the children may prove to be our bridge to the savage way of life and theirs to ours….All children are children finally- it hardly matters to which race or culture they belong- they belong to the first to the race and culture of children.” -May Dodd, page 141.
So, overall, I can’t say too much more without giving everything away, but this book, while entirely fiction, was a bold, touching glimpse into the months leading up to the American Indian War, and I enjoyed every page of it. The only downside? It is 16 pages too short to qualify for the Chunkster challenge. I really thought this would be my first completed tome, but alas, silly Mr. Fergus only had 434 pages worth of stuff to say. Boo, Mr. Fergus, boo! (Dear Mr. Fergus, I’m sure you’re not really silly. I apologize, and I mostly mean it. Sincerely, A Slightly Disgruntled Fan.) Although, if you count the bibliography and the book club discussion in the back, the numbers do almost work themselves out, counting to 449 pages…Hmmmm…Is this cheating? Can I swing it? Will the Chunkster gods give me this grace? I’ll shot them a message and find out. The Case of the Almost-Long-Enough Novel will be continued…