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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Books

Julia Sneden reviews a novel based on a real event, that of a Cheyenne chieftain's unique request for brides to marry his braves, One Thousand White Women; The Journals of May Dodd.

History buffs and travelers take note of Jody Bush's look at London's War: A Traveler's Guide to World War II, a comprehensive and immensely readable guide through London's wartime streets, featured spots, memories, and struggles.

Art

Val Castronovo tells us that when the exhibition celebrating the quincentenary of Parmigianino’s birth leaves the Frick, one of its paintings, the brooding Portrait of a Man with a Book will stay behind for most of a year.

 

Books

One Thousand White Women;
The Journals of May Dodd
a novel by Jim Fergus, © 1998
St. Martin’s Press; paperback; 302pp

This novel spins off from an actual, historical event. In 1854, there was a peace conference in Fort Laramie, at which a Northern Cheyenne chieftain requested of the US Army a gift: 1,000 white women to marry his braves. His reasoning was that it had become obvious that the Indians would never be able to withstand the overwhelming power of the whites who were taking over their world. Since Cheyenne society is matrilineal, i.e. an Indian child belongs not to his father’s, but to his mother’s tribe, marriage between a male Indian and a white woman would provide instant assimilation into the white world for any offspring of that marriage.

This suggestion was not well received, and the peace conference promptly collapsed. Jim Fergus, however, has spun a fascinating tale from the what-if factor. What if the government had indeed sent a few white women, picked from jails and asylums, as gift/brides to the Cheyenne?
The book takes the form of journals kept by May Dodd, a young woman from an insane asylum who was placed there only because she defied her parents and lived with the man she loved, bearing him two children. Her recounting of the events that led to her imprisonment and later liberation (on condition that she go as a bride to the Cheyenne) is very touching. So is her romance with one of the soldiers entrusted with the duty of shepherding the small group of women to the Indians.

As wife to the chief of a small band, she must adapt not only to the new culture, but also to sharing him with two other wives. Her diary’s account of the gradually developing friendship with the other women is a masterful piece of writing.

Fergus has a keen appreciation for the Cheyenne and their culture. He also manages to pull off the feat of imagining how that culture would appear to a white woman of that period. May Dodd is a very sympathetic character: intelligent, sturdy, humorous and caring. She never stops hoping for reconciliation with the two children her family separated from her, even as she grows to love much about her new life.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of how America settled the West won’t be expecting a happy ending for May and the band of Cheyennes. The author doesn’t pretty up the ending, but instead goes a few steps further, to tell us the outcomes for many of the characters involved in May’s life.
It seems to me that this book falls under the category of true fiction; fiction, because it never really happened, but true in its accurate depiction of a time and place and probability. It rings with emotional truth as well.

Julia Sneden

>>Reviews of London's War: A Traveler's Guide to World War II and A Beautiful and Gracious Manner: The Art of Parmigianino.

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