Tag Archives: American History

October 2009 Books

The Tenderness of Wolves

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 whoOne Thousand White Women 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’FarrellIn 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)
From Booklist
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.


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“American Lightning,” book for November 2008

"American Lightning" by Howard Blum

The book for November 2008 is “American Lightning” by Howard Blum.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In 1911, Iron Workers Union leaders James and Joseph McNamara plea-bargained in exchange for prison sentences instead of death after bombing the offices of the Los Angeles Times—killing 21 people and wounding many more. The bombing had been part of a bungled assault on some 100 American cities. After the McNamaras went to jail, Clarence Darrow, their defense attorney, wound up indicted for attempting to bribe the jury, but won acquittal after a defense staged by the brilliant Earl Rogers. The McNamaras were investigated by William J. Burns—near legendary former Secret Service agent and proprietor of a detective agency. Surprisingly, Burns’s collaborator in the investigation was silent film director D.W. Griffith. This tangled and fascinating tale is the stuff of novels, and Vanity Fair contributing editor Blum (The Brigade) tells it with a novelist’s flair. In an approach reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Blum paints his characters in all their grandeur and tragedy, making them—and their era—come alive. Blum’s prose is tight, his speculations unfailingly sound and his research extensive—all adding up to an absorbing and masterful true crime narrative. (Sept.) “”
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.”

From Bookmarks Magazine
Most critics were eager to learn more about this neglected event in American history and were glad to have Blum as their teacher. They were most impressed by the first half of the book, which covers the attacks and investigation and which was several times compared to a Hollywood thriller or an episode of the television show 24. Reviewers were less thrilled by the second part of the book, where Blum introduces Darrow and Griffith into the story. Several felt that these great American personalities were presented superficially, perhaps because Blum attempted too great a scope in the book. But on the whole, critics found American Lightning to be a satisfying work of narrative history.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC

“An unforgettable tale of murder, deceit, celebrity, media manipulation, and film as propaganda, when the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building exposed the deadly ‘national dynamite plot’ by trade unionists to terrorize America with one-hundred bombings in a doomed attempt to force capitalism to its knees. The relentless pursuit, capture, trial, and punishment of the bombers made a national hero of America’s Sherlock Holmes, master detective Billy Burns, and entangled crusading defense lawyer Clarence Darrow in a reckless, nearly career-ending scheme to bribe witnesses and jurors and throttle justice. Gripping, surprising, often thrilling, American Lightning ranks among the most riveting works of narrative history.”
—James L. Swanson, author of the Edgar Award-winning New York Times bestseller Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln’sKiller

“This is a wonderful story, with a cast of characters out of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, told in a style that is lucid, lyrical, even electric. Narrative history at its very best.”
—Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Founding Brothers and American Creation

“In an approach reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Blum paints is characters in all their grandeur and tragedy, making them — and their era — come alive. Blum’s prose is tight, his speculations unfailingly sound and his research extensive — all adding up to an absorbing and masterful true crime narrative.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“The author’s eye for scene-setting and subtle explication perfectly mimics a Griffith-style camera. Blum is at his best when exploring the motivations, the genius and the deep flaws of his three principals, men who occupied the same room only once in their lives, but who are memorably linked in this book. Unfailingly entertaining.”
Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“In American Lightning Howard Blum brings to life the tragic bombing of the Los Angeles Times in l910. Writing with narrative verve and finely-honed detective instincts, Blum fleshes out the real story behind this hideous act of domestic terrorism. Highly recommended!”
—Douglas Brinkley, New York Times bestselling author of The Great Deluge and Tour of Duty and Professor of History, Rice University
“Howard Blum has given us a fascinating–and hugely entertaining–glimpse into early 20th-century America. The burgeoning labor movement, the dawn of the movies, bomb-toting anarchists, ‘the crime of the century,’ gimlet-eyed private detectives, Clarence Darrow,  you name it and it’s here. And–eat your hearts out, novelists–it’s all true.”
—John Steele Gordon, author of Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power

“As good a true-crime tale as you could hope to find, well-researched, vivid, irresistible.”
—Andrew Solomon, author of the National Book Award-winning The Noonday Demon

“Howard Blum has performed a literary miracle. He has brought back to vivid and relevant life a forgotten act of terrorism in America’s past — and made it as suspenseful and crowded with unforgettable characters as any novel I have ever read.”
—Thomas Fleming, New York Times bestselling author of The Officers’ Wives, Time and Tide and The Perils of Peace

American Lightning strikes at the soul of Los Angeles the way Ragtime revealed turn-of-the-century New York. Like E. L. Doctorow, Howard Blum has captured a time and a place through masterful manipulation of true events, weaving an intricate tale of class war and intrigue that harks back to an era when L.A. was little more than a pueblo, frontier justice still prevailed and a fabulous cast of real-life characters dragged the future metropolis kicking and screaming into the 20th Century.”
—Dennis McDougal, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood and Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the LA Times Dynasty

“Master detective William Burns on one side and famed attorney Clarence Darrow on the other…A riveting account of 20th century homegrown political terrorism.”
Library Journal

Product Description
It was an explosion that reverberated across the country—and into the very heart of early-twentieth-century America. On the morning of October 1, 1910, the walls of the Los Angeles Times Building buckled as a thunderous detonation sent men, machinery, and mortar rocketing into the night air. When at last the wreckage had been sifted and the hospital triage units consulted, twenty-one people were declared dead and dozens more injured. But as it turned out, this was just a prelude to the devastation that was to come.

In American Lightning, acclaimed author Howard Blum masterfully evokes the incredible circumstances that led to the original “crime of the century”—and an aftermath more dramatic than even the crime itself.

With smoke still wafting up from the charred ruins, the city’s mayor reacts with undisguised excitement when he learns of the arrival, only that morning, of America’s greatest detective, William J. Burns, a former Secret Service man who has been likened to Sherlock Holmes. Surely Burns, already world famous for cracking unsolvable crimes and for his elaborate disguises, can run the perpetrators to ground.

Through the work of many months, snowbound stakeouts, and brilliant forensic sleuthing, the great investigator finally identifies the men he believes are responsible for so much destruction. Stunningly, Burns accuses the men—labor activists with an apparent grudge against the Los Angeles Times’s fiercely anti-union owner—of not just one heinous deed but of being part of a terror wave involving hundreds of bombings.

While preparation is laid for America’s highest profile trial ever—and the forces of labor and capital wage hand-to-hand combat in the streets—two other notable figures are swept into the drama: industry-shaping filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who perceives in these events the possibility of great art and who will go on to alchemize his observations into the landmark film The Birth of a Nation; and crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow, committed to lend his eloquence to the defendants, though he will be driven to thoughts of suicide before events have fully played out.

Simultaneously offering the absorbing reading experience of a can’t-put-it-down thriller and the perception-altering resonance of a story whose reverberations continue even today, American Lightning is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.

About the Author
HOWARD BLUM is the author of eight previous books, including the national bestsellers Wanted!, The Gold of Exodus, and Gangland. Currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Blum was also a reporter at the New York Times, where he won numerous journalism awards and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting.

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