Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book Club Discussion: "One Thousand White Women"

Our book club held our second discussion session last night. We picked up two new members and hope for more participants when summer vacations wind down. We selected One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus from the reading list for the Wilsonville Library Book Club. We wanted a complete departure from our first book (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and that's what we got.

Written in journal format, the book is historical fiction about a 1875 federal program to send white brides to the Cheyenne in exchange for horses. Since the Cheyenne are a matrilineal culture, they believed white wives and their half-white offspring would help them assimilate into the white world that was emigrating westward.

May, the protagonist, was a member of Chicago's elite social class who fell in love with a man deemed "beneath" her and bore him two children out of wedlock. When she was abandoned with her children, her family took custody of the boy and girl and had May institutionalized for "hysteria." Her goal throughout the story was to be reunited with her children. The antagonistic force was the white culture and societal mores of the time. Had May come from a "lower" social class, she likely would not have been placed in an insane asylum for living with a man outside of marriage. To attain her story goal, May had to overcome the dominant "white culture" of the period.

Although Jim Fergus established motives for his characters that participated in the program, we had a hard time believing that white women would willingly marry "savages" at that period in history. We thought three characters, including the protagonist May, were plausible. We acknowledged that interracial/cultural relationships occurred with the arrival of the Europeans -- but these were often women and children with little other choices for survival.

We noted that Fergus was wonderfully descriptive about the landscape (a major character in the story) and the Cheyenne culture, but his female characters seemed stereotypical. He managed to give each of the women individual voices, but they were a little too pat. Since he has a "hook and bullet" writing background, it's understandable that he would have an affinity for the western environment.

Our group believed Fergus did a good job of showing the good and bad aspects of the Cheyenne and white cultures. Both sides demonstrated savagery and uncivilized behavior. However, we did trip over some anachronistic viewpoints expressed by some of the characters.

We got a chuckle out of period references to the white brides as "fallen whores." Not only did their peers consider them to be whores for willingly marrying "savages," but fallen whores!

For our next book we chose The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Two of our members have already read the book and they are eager to discuss it with the rest of us.

Since our book club is so new, we're still developing our structure. Last night we agreed that we will take turns by alphabetical order to select books for the group to read. We also agree that we will strive for books that none of us have read already.

1 comment:

Vaquerogirl said...

Just found your blog through another of my favorites. I too am a writer(published) and equestrian- actually I am a cowgirl by nature- though I don't own any cows!
I read the same book and had a lot of the same feelings about it. In the end it wasn't as satisfying a read as I had hoped it would be.

I'll stay tuned to see what you have next- I'm always looking for a good read!