Monday, April 26, 2010

The Trouble with One Thousand White Women

I don’t write a lot of book reviews. I rarely have anything worthwhile to say beyond, “I liked (or disliked) the book.”

However, after finishing Jim Fergus’s One Thousand White Women, I would like to add my thoughts to Tricia’s.

In short, I think One Thousand White Women is an indictment against the way books are selected for publishing.

That sounded meaner than I intended. Fergus has not written a bad book, just middling. It has a great central concept and narrator but not much else.

Fergus tells the fictional story of how President Ulysses Grant traded 1,000 white women to the Cheyenne for 1,000 horses. The idea behind the trade is that Native American tribes are matrilineal, and the children of the white women would be able to integrate themselves into the white person’s world.

In other words, it’s like when royal families would arrange marriages between scions as part of a treaty.

Fergus tells the story from the perspective of May Dodd, a former Chicago socialite. Her family incarcerated her in an asylum after she coupled with someone they did not like. This “wife swap” is her best chance for freedom.

Fergus has a great hook. When Tricia told me the premise of the book, I wanted to borrow it.

Unfortunately, the hook is better then the book.

Fergus struggles to wring the most from his great hook. His strength is in plotting. He sets up what could be great story beats, but he does not maximize them. (“Maximize” is a horrible buzzword, but you know what I mean.)

There is one scene in which Dodd offers her own body to a rapist so her step-daughter will not be victimized. The scene should be powerful. There is no violation worse than rape. None. Dodd, as a former rape victim, realizes this. We need to know her thought process. We need to know why she chose to suffer this violation again to protect her step-daughter.

But we don’t get that.

We get two paragraphs describing the act. No thoughts, no description of the damage — emotional or otherwise.

It is a missed opportunity. There are others, but I don’t need to list them all for you to understand my point.

As per characters, May Dodd is a great narrator. She survives challenges by latching onto whatever slim slice of good news she can. When there is no good news, she holds onto hope.

Dodd does this without sacrificing her common sense. She isn’t naive. She’s practical and realizes complaining won’t help her.

It’s a thin line, but Fergus threads it.

That’s the good news. The bad news is Fergus does not create any worthwhile secondary characters for Dodd to interact with.

Fergus populates his story with familiar stereotypes. The disgraced southern belle is a drunken racist. The priest is a child molester. The Cheyenne chief is a stoic model of dignity. The former slave is an athletic prodigy who sings spirituals. The rascally Irish twins get into shenanigans.

They’re all predictable, as if Fergus sketched the characters through a word-association game in which he blurted the first attribute that came to mind.

And why is this an indictment of the way books are selected to be published? What does one average — not bad, just average — book have to do with the query-agent-publisher gauntlet?

Agents and publishers put a premium on a strong hook. “Convince me quickly.” “Make me want to read it in two sentences.”

That’s not to say they will publish anything with a good hook; but they’ll publish a dozen weak books with a strong premise before one strong book with a subtle hook slides through.

Fergus’s strengths coincide with what agents and publishers are trained to look for. His weaknesses are less important because one has to read the book to discover them. If you’re browsing through a bookstore or online, you won’t know it has weak secondary characters until you read a few chapters. But you can glance at the back cover and see the great hook.

I don’t want to pick on Fergus. I’m not saying One Thousand White Women should not have been published. It just benefitted from a flawed system.

And I can’t even suggest on how to improve that system. Agents and publishers are inundated with queries. They probably would love to have unlimited time to sift through the manuscripts; but the world ain’t ideal, and writers usually have one or two pages to convince the next rung on the ladder to let them climb.

So what conclusion can I come to? That Fergus wrote a bad book? No, just flawed. That the agent-publisher system is unfair? No, just flawed.

I guess I have no strong conclusion. Does that make this review worthless?

No, just flawed.

-Jason Lea

P.S. From Tricia: I sort of agree with you, Jason. I think that lack of secondary character development has more to do with the set-up of the narrative as a series of diary entries than anything else.

We see these characters only as May herself sees them, which perhaps explains some of the stereotypes. And as far as the rape scene goes, I found it believable that she wanted to record as few details of the event as possible.

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