Daniel's Reviews > One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
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's review
Jan 12, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: book-club, 2009
Read in January, 2009

Dear May Dodd,

I received your letter of 20 January 1876, accompanied by portions of your journal, and, in short, I'm not falling for it. They sound like they were written sometime in the 1990s, and probably by a man. While I found many reasons to come to this conclusion, the biggest giveaways were your obsession with penis size and the fact that your signature was followed by an AOL e-mail address.

Disgruntled Reader

OK, that was a bit harsh and if for some reason Mr. Fergus is reading this review, I want to say to him: I didn't completely dislike "One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd," and I give you credit for trying to adopt the viewpoint of not just a woman, but a woman from more than a century ago. That took balls. Unfortunately for your readers, those balls weren't backed up by brains.

While Fergus obviously did a lot of research to learn about the culture of the Cheyenne nation and other Indian tribes -- he even shows his work by giving us a bibliography -- he completely fails to transport his readers back to an earlier time. That's the most basic requirement of any historical novel. Few pages go by in which Fergus doesn't attribute to May Dodd words and ideas that would be completely foreign to any woman living in the 1870s -- even a woman as progressive as May is supposed to be. For most of the novel, May sounds less like a 19th century woman of any background or educational level, and more like a Volvo-driving Web designer from San Francisco who's on her way to pick up her daughter at soccer practice, has to drop her off at the ex-husband's for his weekend visitation, and then, before going to her newly purchased fixer-upper in the Mission District, plans to stop by the polling place to vote for Dianne Feinstein.

Small examples: May repeatedly refers to another character as an "amateur ethnographer," describes herself as being "agnostic" when it comes to religion, characterizes herself as being as "big as a house" when pregnant, and says that a woman who ends her pregnancy "aborted" the baby. These are simply not words or ideas that any woman living in the 1870s would use, and especially not as casually as she does. This may sound like nitpicking, but there's never a point in the whole book in which even the most forgiving reader could honestly say to herself, "This can't possibly be a novel. He must have actually found May Dodd's lost journals from the 1870s." And yet that's what we the readers are apparently expected to do, at least according to Fergus's "Reading Group Gold" notes in the back of the edition I read.

There are other annoyances too. Many of the characters are given cutesy names that reflect their personalities and interests. The woman who studies and paints birds is named, unsurprisingly, Helen Flight, while a self-important and prudish character is, naturally, Narcissa White, and a dainty Southern belle is, wait for it, Daisy Lovelace. And, aside from giving characters lines and viewpoints that feel anachronistic, Fergus also makes passing reference to things that simply didn't exist in the 1870s. Hey, Jim, there was no Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra in 1875. Even the city's earliest such orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, wasn't formed until 16 years later. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) If you're trying to really make us believe we're reading a recovered journal, this is not the way to do it. Why not just give the Indian chief a BlackBerry, and President Ulysses S. Grant a subscription to Us Weekly?

All right, I've been nasty enough. There is a reason I gave "One Thousand White Women" two stars instead of one. Aside from the anachronisms, the book is reasonably well-written, and the story is compelling and relatively fast-paced. That makes up for some of the novel's faults. But you know what would have made the novel ten times better? Given that we're supposed to be reading the journals of a woman who's first diagnosed as insane, and then becomes a bride to an Indian chief under a secret government program, why come right out and reveal to your readers that she wasn't actually crazy and really did join a Cheyenne tribe? Why not leave it an open question, and let your readers decide for themselves whether the program was real or May Dodd was just nuts? That, perhaps, would make for a better novel.

On a side note, it was interesting to read Fergus's novel right after finishing Daniel Defoe's "Moll Flanders," and less than a year after reading Larry McMurtry's "Telegraph Days." What do the three have in common? Each novel is told from a woman's point, was written by a man, and focuses on a woman who are far more liberated and self-directed than her female contemporaries. While McMurtry's book was not a lot better than Fergus's (though it was a lot more fun), neither of them should even be mentioned in the same sentence as "Moll Flanders." (Oops.) It's impossible to imagine either one being widely read almost three centuries from now, as Defoe's 1722 novel is today.
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01/30 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-45 of 45) (45 new)

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message 1: by Rose (new)

Rose Great review. Reading it was much more entertaining than I think the book would have been, although it could have been more so had you adopted the persona of an 1870s woman posting on the Internet (Username: FeistyChick76, or something).

I especially liked your parallel with Moll Flanders, though I haven't heard of the other book you mentioned. I wonder how good a job Defoe would have done of it had he set Moll Flanders out of his own time period.

Daniel It's a good question, Rose. As for "Telegraph Days," its author, Larry McMurtry, is best known as the writer of "Lonesome Dove," a Western that was turned into a well-known television miniseries here in the U.S. years ago. "Telegraph Days" was OK, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Christina I do agree with this (harsh) review. This book was incredibly hard for me to read from the very beginning. The entire time I was conscious that a man was trying so very hard to portray a woman's voice, thoughts, experiences. I became more interested and in the book once the women were integrated in the Cheyenne tribe- but still, it just wasn't very convincing. I'm shocked his editor was a woman.

PS- did you notice that all of the glowing reviews in the book were written by men??

Daniel I didn't notice that, Christina. I haven't really looked at the other reviews though.

By the way, the book club I read this for met two nights ago, and opinions were mixed. I disliked it the most, but a couple others had similar opinions. One person thought the diary format allowed the writer to skimp on character development. Some people thought it would make a good movie though.

Christina Our book club is tonight- and I already know two of the members loved it... I'm curious to see everyone else's thoughts.

I kind of felt like he was writing the book FOR a movie....

Daniel Christina, please come back and share your book group's opinions. I'm curious to hear what they thought.

Jennifer Great review! But I must say, I'm a woman and I thought the book was fabulous! And my all-female book club all agreed. As a woman, I did not feel that the author had a hard time speaking from a woman's point of view.

Daniel Thank you for the kind words, Jennifer, even though you and I disagree about the book itself. By the way, you might want to avoid my review of "A Thousand Splendid Suns." You may start to hate me after you read it.

message 9: by Rhonda (new)

Rhonda Hey Daniel, thanks for saving me the trouble. It's just so hard to find good historical fiction from a female POV. And that was cute what you did with Moll Flanders in the same sentence!

Daniel Thank you, Rhonda!

message 11: by Jen (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jen Jennifer wrote: "Great review! But I must say, I'm a woman and I thought the book was fabulous! And my all-female book club all agreed. As a woman, I did not feel that the author had a hard time speaking from a wom..."

I was the lone wolf speaking out against the book in my womens' book club, but everyone laughed at my observations, which I took as tacit agreement.

Really. Just remembering those moccasined feet pitter patering behind her and a feather flicking her ass....ugh

Julie Hello Daniel,

Excellent review.

I'm halfway through the book and I can barely stand the anachronisms and ‘other annoyances’ as you put it. It reminds me of old westerns on film. You really have to suspend your disbelief to enjoy the romanticized version of cowboys and Indians. The characters are charactures.

Sometimes the book reads like a Harlequin novel with an S&M twist: the twisted sexual torture of the insane asylum, the handsome dark colonel, the nasty ‘half-breed’ with an erection, blech. If I want to enjoy some erotic fiction... I'd prefer it be presented as such.

I just finished The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton: A Novel by Jane Smiley which is set in approximately the same time with similar period references. I'm also reading the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Both books written by women about women in tough circumstances (to say the least) and both with (I feel) true and accurate portrayals of what real women would do and feel in those circumstances.

as an aside... it is nice to see a man see through this weak portrayal. I tend to avoid books about women written by men because I think I'm always looking for that lack of true understanding and it ruins my ability to be truly absorbed into a book. At least in this case your review helped me see that it isn’t just my bias that’s keeping me from enjoying this book.


message 13: by Jill (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jill I actually liked the book, but it's interesting to see someone elses review and then go back and think about the book again.

message 14: by Kapi (last edited Aug 18, 2010 02:01PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kapi Yup. Couldn't agree more. Thanks for the recommendation for Moll Flanders. Will have to check it out!

message 15: by Maude (new)

Maude Dear Daniel, I think your review was very good except for a few things. First your idea that women in the 1870's would never use the word "abortion" or have such an idea, I can assure you that you are wrong. Women have been having abortions since the beginning of time, even in 1870 and before. My grandmother could tell you stories. I do not know but I would also surmise that "as big as a house" is a lot older than you think. Remember that America was a thriving place with big cities, Chicago, New York, etc., and although there were many people living on farms, etc they were not necessarily illiterate and unaware of the facts of life.

Judywi I couldn't agree more. Excellent review.

Katherine Great review! I totally agree.

message 18: by Amy (new)

Amy Nope. According to http://www.sings.ca/MusicTimePeriods/..., there was a Chicago Philharmonic as early as 1850.(Google search, took about 30 seconds.)

The term "agnostic" is believed to have been coined in 1869, and the word "abortion" has been in use since at least the 16th century. There's nothing startling about an educated person of the time using that language. I do agree that the book doesn't always read like a journal, though, which did rather annoy me.

message 19: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Wow, you seriously can write yourself! I couldn't find the words and it was like you took my exact feelings right out of my brain and put them on the computer! I loved your review so much, that I copied and pasted it on to a blank page to read out loud to my book club. Of course I have no intention of stealing your words and will give you much credit, "Disgruntled Reader", for being able to pen what I wasn't sure I could actually express and will explain that I indeed borrowed your words to do so. Sometimes we feel we can't express negative feelings about a book when it is recommended by very good friends who you don't wish to insult at book clubs. Yet I felt so strong that I had wasted my time (somewhat) on this book, that I wasn't sure how to express my views on it until I read your review. I love reading real stories about the west, the Indians, the "white' pioneers and mountain men and have a good acquaintance with real historical tales and manners of the old west that I felt rather cheated in reading Fergus's book. Thank You for taking the time to write what I couldn't.

message 20: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Sorry, I meant thank you Daniel!

message 21: by Sophie (new)

Sophie Great review! I agree with Lauren that you are a very good writer yourself.

message 22: by Ami (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ami My thoughts exactly! The use of the word manicure early on also bothered me. While it may have been technically possible, it jus seemed very out of place for the period.

Labarry Excellent review!

message 24: by Jane (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jane I recently read this for a book club and you wrote down exactly how I feel about this book! I was glad this was such a fast read for me because I wasn't sure if I could finish it otherwise lol...
I could not "suspend my disbelief" for this novel at all. I noticed the whole name thing too (Helen Flight!!) and there was just no way I could picture a woman from the 1870's in May's voice. The diction was just too... modern? It made me laugh because at the beginning of the book there was that disclaimer about how this was not a real event in history, so I was hoping he'd be really... convincing... lollll
Great review! Well said!

Melissa Etheridge Thank you Daniel for a fantastic review~I smiled through my bites of granola. While I enjoyed the book more than you, I agree with your comments. But, I enjoyed the book precisely for those reasons. It was like watching a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie~entertaining but not realistic. I have to admit that I went into the story thinking that it really was going to be a nonfiction piece (IDK why, but I was blindsided). But once I got over my disappointment, I was okay with it. Again, thanks for the review~I'm definitely going to be following you.

Kristy You wrote exactly what was in my mind! I found myself skimming the book after I reached the halfway point. It became an annoyance to me, but I had to finish it!

message 27: by Leonide (new)

Leonide Martin Daniel, you just saved me a lot of time. Think I'll skip this book because what bothered you will irritate me no end. So appreciate your incisive and honest comments.

Mohawkgrl Couldn't have said it better myself! Exactly why I gave it only 2 stars, as well. Thanks!!!

message 29: by Mj (new)

Mj Hi Daniel,

Was referred to your review by someone I am following. When I asked why the rating was so low I was referred to your review.

Quite a thorough and thoughtful review. I am interested in reading more of your reviews and finding out what books you think a lot of.

Unfortunately, your profile sets everything to private so no one can read anyting unless they are a friend.

Any chance you might make your books and opinions more public? You seem to have a lot to offer.

Thanks in advance for your consideration.(less)

message 30: by Danielle (new)

Danielle Just came upon this as I am reading the book for my club and was wondering if anyone else had similar observations to mine. Most of our club members are about halfway through--as am I. From the comments I've heard, I'm the only one who finds this book inane. I agree completely with the reviews here and myself have used the words caricature, anachronism and Harlequin Romance.

In addition, there are some glaring lapses of logic. Where did this Lovelace woman get her endless supply of liquor? How did two girls born and raised in a Chicago orphanage have such heavy Irish accents? Why would they accept an escaped slave into the program if they were looking for white women?

Finally, the book is full of grammatical and word usage errors (effect for affect, eg.) Apparentely, no one at the publisher bothered to proofread it. I found this last fact so annoying that I swore off books by St. Martin's Press.

I'm going to finish it, and at the meeting try to be a little more tactful than I've been here. However, I have no intention of ever reading anything penned by Mr. Fergus again.

message 31: by Amy (new) - rated it 1 star

Amy Wow...I love this review and this thread of comments. Sometimes I read a book like this and I think I am supposed to like it because everybody has raved about it. BUT. In all honesty I didn't "buy" what the author was selling. Thank you thank you thank you. Daniel's review was not harsh...it was spot on! Plus, I thought the book was too wordy...but the end I was scanning the pages to just get it over with. (I also don't buy that these women fell in love with their "husbands". We are supposed to just ignore the barbaric nature of the author's descriptions? I am suprised rather than praise, there hasn't been outcry.)

message 32: by Mary (new)

Mary Kohen I have not even finished this book yet & wondered if anyone else felt the way that I did........I almost threw it across the room last night! I am reading it for a book group and do not think I will even be able to finish it; it is so poorly written to begin with. There are so many inconsistencies (ie: she begins her first letter to her sister Hortense by basically "dissing" everything about her life but then goes on and on describing what she is doing. ??? Absolutely CANNOT stand the way he writes the dialogue for the other "ethnic" characters (what is up with that?) and I too felt it was like a Harlequin Romance Novel. I plan on making a copy of Daniel's review and reading it at what may be my last book group meeting; life is too short to read bad books! (hmmmmm, what a great idea for a t-shirt!) Thanks so much Daniel!

Jacque Overall, I liked your review, however, regarding the fact that the Chicago Orchestra (which later became the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) was not formed until about 17 years after the story takes place: This did not bother me for three reasons: 1. Most of the story takes place out on the Western Plains; Chicago is not the main setting. 2. May and her family are not musicians, any errors in reference to the CO/CSO specifically is not relevant to her character arc. It is just an example of the type of cultural activity she would have been exposed to. 3. There were actual orchestra concert series in existence in Chicago at least as early as the 1860's presented by Theodore Thomas who later became the first conductor of the actual CO. He would have featured many of the same composers and repertoire in the 60's as he did later with the CO in the 80's.

Jacque If I knew how to edit my comment I would change 80's to 90's. (the CO's first concert was 12/17/90)

Alissa Would it have killed him to research some 19th-century diction?

Excellent review. Thank you!

message 36: by Rachel (new)

Rachel B I hate it when women who supposedly lived "way back when" are portrayed with cultural ideas and biases that they wouldn't have had, so thank you for the heads up! I won't waste my time on this one.

Diane This book was given to me as a Christmas gift. I probably wouldn't have read it all the way through except for the Cheyenne life was interesting. I didn't like that the author was a male trying to portray a female. It just wasn't believable. Men should not try to write as a woman. Never works. I agree with Daniels review, but not as harshly.

message 38: by Stina (new) - added it

Stina I was unsure about this book and am so glad I saw your review! Not only was it fantastic, it has saved me hours of what undoubtedly would have otherwise annoyed the hell out of me. I like my historical novels to be grounded to the time in which they occur. So thanks for the heads up.

message 39: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Talmers I enjoyed this book very much and find this reviewer to be rude and harsh. I laughed out loud in parts and cried in parts. Perhaps some of these critics should read non-fiction so their intellect is not so assaulted. Relax and draw in your fangs.

message 40: by Deborah (new) - added it

Deborah Martin Comments have changed my desire to read book.

Carolyn I agree it was ludicrous and silly. I have to say I don't like reading "what if" books based on a historical event, like "what if Hitler won the war". It is just someones flight of fancy and guessing.

Kathleen This review is spot on, and I enjoyed it more than the book.

message 43: by Margaret M. (new)

Margaret M. I was just about to start reading this book, and since I am not a fan of historical fiction, it was a big deal for me the try it. But this story was based on expanding the possibility of a real event, so I thought it might be good. I am so so so glad to have read your review before I wasted my time beginning to read it and be turned off. I was suspicious when I read the prologue and Grant was supposedly drunk. If the author had really researched his subject, and not just the Cheyenne, or if his editor had any kind of clue, they would not have perpetuated this non-truth about Grant (that he was a drunk). There are so many memoirs by women who were true western pioneers, and who were actual surviving captives of Native American tribes, that the wealth of information available to actually get it right, to create believable prose, is there for the reading, and taking.

message 44: by Jill (new) - rated it 1 star

Jill I debated how to review this book and you've covered most of the things that disappointed me. All of the characters were so obvious and oversimplified, and the addition of the phonetic spellings to highlight their accents was incredibly juvenile and insulting to the reader. The Swiss woman's accent wasn't even accurate - she sounded more like the Swedish chef!
Just a silly, poorly written book based on what is otherwise an incredibly interesting theme. I would describe it as a cross between a book for young readers like Sarah Plain and Tall and a rated G version of 50 Shades of Gray. I couldn't continue after the "show me how civilized men make love" line. Ugh!

message 45: by Meredith (new)

Meredith Jill, I almost stopped reading this book after that line (show me how a civilized man makes love) and definitely laughed out loud during May's consummation of her wedding night. I also found the book mildly if harmlessly offensive, but somewhat entertaining.

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