Can a writer present history that’s more exciting than a textbook but still discharges the essence of truth if he strays from absolute fact by embellishing a real moment with creative interpretation?
Jim Fergus based his novel, One Thousand White Women, the Journals of May Dodd, on one small incident in American history. In 1854 Cheyenne Chief Little Wolf traveled to Washington and proposed to President Ulysses Grant that the two cultures make a trade. The Indians, whose people were dying out, would give one thousand horses in exchange for one thousand white women. The women would procreate with Indian men, and the resulting children would be a bridge between cultures, ensuring a future for Indians within the annexation of their land by the white community. Never happened, of course, or you’d know a gazillion women claiming to be heroic descendents of this social experiment and likely demanding reparations loudly, or hiding the humiliating fact of their heritage and likely demanding reparations secretly, depending on whether they found the act courageous or shameful.
Fergus used this failed attempt at genetic meddling as the kernel for his book, but he changed the original suggestion to take place in 1874. The U.S. government accepts Little Wolf’s offer and rounds up women on the fringes of American society (no debutantes these future Indian wives): those in insane asylums, prisons, or the social bondage of being too homely to marry. From an insane asylum comes May Dodd, a young and progressive woman who has already exhibited unconventional characteristics by living out of wedlock with a man below her social standing and bearing him two children. Her own family determines the obvious conclusion: she is mad, and they confine her to a mental institution where she is treated brutally. May volunteers to go west and become a Bride for Indians, as it’s the only way she can be released from the asylum.
The strange journey of her life with the Indians reflects a great deal of the actual history of the broken treaties between the US government and the Indian tribes they are trying to confine to reservations. May Dodd witnesses horrible acts on the part of American soldiers as well as Cheyenne warriors. She finds the “savage” lifestyle of the Indians more appealing than that of the White America that betrayed her. In the end, May learns that betrayal and savagery is the territory of all men, and skin color and culture have little hand in making anyone a noble being. Is Fergus’ book a twist of history? Of course, but in his hands he reveals both Indian and American societies, showing that they are closer in kind than either would admit. There is much truth in the betrayal of the Indians at the business end of government rifles and broken treaties, and in the narration of repugnant tribal savagery. May Dodd is the vehicle through which this mortifying period of history comes alive in ways that history books don’t achieve.
The historian Josephus, a first century Jewish scholar who lived in Roman controlled Judea, wrote the only known account of the siege of Masada. Masada was a fortress built on a desert mountaintop south of Jerusalem which in 70 C.E. held out against 10,000 well armed and provisioned Roman troops. More than 900 Jewish men, women, and children determined that they would not concede to Roman condemnation of their faith or control of their destiny, and chose instead a mass suicide pact, thus deflating Rome’s power. Josephus’ history discloses that two women and five children survived the massacre though no details exist. Museums in Israel and Wales maintain in their collections several artifacts from the siege: a scrap of plaid fabric, a woman’s sandals, an amulet, remnants of silver armor, incantation bowls.
From these few remains Alice Hoffman constructed The Dovekeepers, a story of four women whose resilience and extraordinary skills bear witness to the cruelty of the Romans and the ingenuity of the Jewish rebels who refuse to be conquered. Yael is the daughter of the master assassin who leads the Jewish band. Revka fiercely hides and protects her grandsons after the murder of their mother at the hands of Roman soldiers. Shirah uses her skill with magic and folk medicine to aid those in precarious health, especially women. Aziza secrets herself in the guise of a male and bests the young Jewish warriors at skills they cannot imagine a girl could learn. These women maintain the dovecote, an essential asset in keeping the Jewish community from starving. Hoffman admits that there is controversy over whether or not doves were actually kept at Masada, but in her book they represent a critical resource and the future.
History may be intricately folded like origami or cut like lace in attempts to tell only the most significant parts of an event and leave out the mundane details. Thus textbooks explain complex troop movements, the rank of leaders, and political intrigue but miss telling about the impact of war on the children and wives left behind, of the ordinary farmers, weavers, and sailors still trying to bring in their crops, sew coats, or transport goods. Common folk have little place in the annals of world history and are given short shrift, if any shrift at all, in history books. In the hands of deft wordsmiths, the truths of these ordinary lives come to light in rich and unexpected ways, exposing the full breadth of history, filling in the spaces between what historians find important and what people want to know.
Robert Morgan writes at the end of his novel Gap Creek:
I tell my students that you do not write living fiction by attempting to transcribe actual events onto the page. You create a sense of real characters and a real story by putting down one vivid detail, one exact phrase, at a time. The fiction is imagined, but if it is done well, it seems absolutely true, as real as the world around us.
I offer only scant apology to the reworking of history in my own stories. I am a storyteller who loves history and researching real events, real people. But if a detail would better tell my story with a bit of imaginative revision, then hand me the scissors and glue. You can always go read a history book about the same events. It’s not meant for one genre to usurp another but for each to complement the other, a silk image embroidered on parchment.
Native American image courtesy: publicdomainpictures.net