The Tenderness of Wolves by Steph Penney and One Thousand White Women – The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus were our two books for October. Both take place in areas where white settlers are beginning to establish settlements on land where Native Americans live. That these books were related in theme made the discussion about the books much richer. Choosing two related books is something we aim for, but we don’t often succeed. However, we’re so good that we can find relationships between any two books. We all agreed that we would recommend both of these books, a rare occurence.
In both books, the main character is a woman who has been committed to an insane asylum because she doesn’t fit into upperclass white society but who is later released, because a place for her is found outside regular society. I don’t know how often wayward women were actually committed to asylums, but it seems to be a theme in books we’ve read, including The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. In both the October books, white women form relationships with Native American men. There’s a whole genre of romance books devoted to this theme. I haven’t read any of them, but it seems to have a broad appeal. These two books were not romance novels, however. Human society of all kinds was depicted in both books as harsh and violent with some tenderness giving comfort. White settlements were sometimes seen as oasis, but were often revealed to be less welcoming and more rigid than the Indian societies. Yet, particularly in the May Dodd book, Native American society also had its rules and restrictions that Dodd chafed against. Additionally, there were some acts of cruelty that were horrifying.
This is from the Author’s Notes of One Thousand White Women – The Journals of May Dodd: “In spite of efforts to convince the reader to the contrary, this book is entirely a work of fiction. However, the seed that grew into a novel was sown in the author’s imagination by an actual historical event: in 1854 at a peace conference at Fort Laramie, 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. Because theirs is a matrilineal society in which all children born belong to their mother’s tribe, this seemed to the Cheyennes to be the perfect means of assimilation into the white man’s world — a terrifying new world that even as early as 1854, the Native Americans clearly recognized held no place for them. Needless to say, the Cheyenne’s request was not well received by the white authorities — the peace conference collapsed, the Cheyennes went home, and of course, the white women did not come. In this novel they do.”
The Tenderness of Wolves seemed the more realistically realized story of the two and was drawn on a smaller stage with fewer characters and a straightforward plot. There was a mystery to be solved, a mother’s need to find and save her child and a some relationships to be worked out.
One Thousand White Women seemed cartoonish to me at first, but it was entertaining. The author seemed to include every type of female stereotype he could find — wild Irish girls, noble black woman, haughty religious woman, prejudiced Southern woman, mannish upper class Englishman and so on. The Indian characters seemed to be more realistic, although there was less time spent on describing them. May Dodd was an attractive, smart, almost perfect woman with an independent spirit who had defied her strait-laced family, ran off with a man she loved, had two children with him and who then abandoned her and for her defiance of “normal” behavior was sent to an asylum. Later, she fell for an Army officer who later turned out to be something of a cad, too. In the arrangement of white women for American Indian husbands, May Dodd was matched up as the third wife of a chief, Little Wolf, who was a decent man, but May and Little Wolf never became close.
When I was reading this, I thought of the book and the movie Little Big Man about another character who is able to move between different societies and provide a unique perspective. My family is from South Dakota, moving there in the late 1880s, so I grew up fascinated with pioneer life and those of the Indian tribes who lived in central South Dakota and in the Black Hills. In One Thousand White Women, Fergus says that the locales are all fictional, but he does write about the Black Hills, an area I am very familiar with. One of my great grandfathers arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1883, and later settled in Sturgis. Other relatives lived in the area, too, including my great-aunt Esther Bovee whose family ranch included Bear Butte, a butte mentioned in the book that is a real location. Their old farm-house is now part of a state park. I’ve climbed Bear Butte twice, once a child. Signs tell that this is a place sacred to the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux, and you see medicine flags and bundles tied to bushes and trees. I took my interest in this area and its people further through my graduate studies in American History at the University of Kansas, specializing in “Trans-Mississippi West,” so I enjoy reading any book about the topic. Click on Bear Butte to read about this sacred place. The article also mentions the Bovee family. By Catherine Sherman.
Below are book reviews.
One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus (paperback)
An American western with a most unusual twist, this is an imaginative fictional account of the participation of May Dodd and others in the controversial “Brides for Indians” program, a clandestine U.S. government^-sponsored program intended to instruct “savages” in the ways of civilization and to assimilate the Indians into white culture through the offspring of these unions. May’s personal journals, loaded with humor and intelligent reflection, describe the adventures of some very colorful white brides (including one black one), their marriages to Cheyenne warriors, and the natural abundance of life on the prairie before the final press of the white man’s civilization. Fergus is gifted in his ability to portray the perceptions and emotions of women. He writes with tremendous insight and sensitivity about the individual community and the political and religious issues of the time, many of which are still relevant today. This book is artistically rendered with meticulous attention to small details that bring to life the daily concerns of a group of hardy souls at a pivotal time in U.S. history.
From Kirkus Reviews: Long, brisk, charming first novel about an 1875 treaty between Ulysses S. Grant and Little Wolf, chief of the Cheyenne nation, by the sports reporter and author of the memoir A Hunter’s Road (1992). Little Wolf comes to Washington and suggests to President Grant that peace between the Whites and Cheyenne could be established if the Cheyenne were given white women as wives, and that the tribe would agree to raise the children from such unions. The thought of miscegenation naturally enough astounds Grant, but he sees a certain wisdom in trading 1,000 white women for 1,000 horses, and he secretly approves the Brides For Indians treaty. He recruits women from jails, penitentiaries, debtors’ prisons, and mental institutionsoffering full pardons or unconditional release. May Dodd, born to wealth in Chicago in 1850, had left home in her teens and become the mistress of her father’s grain-elevator foreman. Her outraged father had her kidnaped, imprisoning her in a monstrous lunatic asylum. When Grant’s offer arrives, she leaps at it and soon finds herself traveling west with hundreds of white and black would-be brides. All are indentured to the Cheyenne for two years, must produce children, and then will have the option of leaving. May, who keeps the journal we read, marries Little Wolf and lives in a crowded tipi with his two other wives, their children, and an old crone who enforces the rules. Reading about life among the Cheyenne is spellbinding, especially when the women show up the braves at arm-wrestling, foot-racing, bow-shooting, and gambling. Liquor raises its evil head, as it will, and reduces the braves to savagery. But the women recover, go out on the winter kill with their husbands, and accompany them to a trading post where they drive hard bargains and stop the usual cheating of the braves. Eventually, when the cavalry attacks the Cheyenne, mistakenly thinking they’re Crazy Horse’s Sioux, May is killed. An impressive historical, terse, convincing, and affecting.
The Tenderness of Wolves by Steph Penney
From Bookmarks Magazine
Long-listed for the Orange Prize and winner of the Costa Award (formerly Britain’s Whitbread Award), Tenderness of Wolves, Stef Penney’s first novel, has garnered acclaim in Europe and the United States. A screenwriter, Penney casts the harsh Canadian landscape in vivid, cinematic hues while portraying a small society born of isolation, corporate greed, and an unforgiving environment. Although a murder mystery with many plot twists, the novel most successfully reveals complex human desires, motivations, and relationships. Some critics faulted Penney’s “noble savage” stereotypes, cliched dialogue, and unremarkable ending. However, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune notes, “Sometimes the journey is just more interesting than the destination.”
More on “One Thousand White Women” from Barnes and Noble. This site contains several readers’ reviews, which are very mixed from those seeing it as a fascinating picture of life in the West among American Indians to others finding the book cliched and cartoonish.
THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES (Simon & Schuster, $25), Marilyn Stasio, New York Times.
This first novel that won the Costa (formerly the Whitbread) Award for Stef Penney, initially presents itself as a claustrophobic 19th-century murder mystery, set in the dead of winter and confined to Dove River, an isolated European settlement on the edge of the Canadian frontier. Or so it seems when Penney’s narrator, Mrs. Ross, one of the settlement’s hardy pioneers, discovers the scalped corpse of a local fur trader. But when her 17-year-old son, Francis, disappears on the same day, the novel abandons its whodunit component and expands into a more ambitious form. Once Mrs. Ross strikes out in search of her son, “The Tenderness of Wolves” becomes a wilderness adventure with heavy doses of romance and native history, handled in a graceful, almost delicate, style, but strangely devoid of the thrills you’d expect in such a savage place.