Regional fiction: Jim Fergus follows up on his best-selling “One Thousand White Women” – The Denver Post

"The Vengeance of Mothers" by Jim Fergus
“The Vengeance of Mothers” by Jim Fergus

“Hell hath no fury like the vengeance of mothers,” writes Jim Fergus in the sequel to his best-selling “One Thousand White Women.”  Both books are based on a fictitious 1870s Brides-for-Indians program in which the government agrees to send 1,000 white women to the Cheyenne as brides, in exchange for an equal number of horses.

The first book ended tragically, as government troops attacked the Cheyenne village where the brides lived, killing virtually all of them, along with their babies. The only known survivors were Martha and the Irish red-haired twins, Meggie and Susie Kelly.

Martha is supposedly sent east, while the Kelly sisters, become “white Cheyenne, strong-hearted warrior women, scourge of the Great Plains.” Grieving their dead children, the twins live only for revenge. It helps if you’ve read the earlier book and don’t have to figure all this out. Still, this is a stand-alone novel.

After the massacre, the authorities disavow the brides program and eradicate all traces of it — or so they think.  As “The Vengeance of Mothers” starts, another group of brides, most of them volunteers from prison, asylum, whorehouse or violent marriage, is mistakenly sent west.  Their train is attacked by members of the very band that had taken in the earlier women.  Seven brides survive and are snatched up by the Indian warriors who take them west to join their tribe.

“The Vengeance of Mothers” is written in journal form.  Both Meggie Kelly and a new recruit, Molly McGill, keep journals that are hidden for nearly 150 years, until they are delivered to the Chicago magazine that revealed the history of the first brides. The women tell parallel stories but from vastly different points of view. Molly, who was serving a life sentence for murder in Sing Sing until released for the program, does not care whether she lives or dies, while Meggie, along with her sister, is vengeful and wants to be shed of the new arrivals. Reluctantly, the twins take the greenhorns under their wing and teach them Cheyenne ways, as the little band wends its way west.  Meggie’s journal is raw and sassy, while Molly writes with the eye of the schoolteacher she once was.

The women are a sturdy, uncomplaining and diverse lot. One had been confined to a mental institution by her pastor husband so that he could consort with his mistress. Another is an English noblewoman seeking to find what happened to her lesbian lover, one of the earlier brides.  And then there is Martha, who didn’t make it east after all but was kidnapped by a psychopath who beat and tortured her.  Traumatized, she rejoins the women after Molly overpowers her captor.

The band takes months to find the main body of Indians, and Molly, of course, falls in love with their leader, Hawk.  The women join the band and are paired with potential husbands from among the Indian warriors, but only after the brides perform the cancan for an astonished group of Cheyenne. The scene is hilarious, if improbable.  In fact, the whole story is improbable, but in the hands of author Jim Fergus, it becomes a believable tale of the Old West.  Meggie and Susie are infectious, and Molly is heroic.  If the story isn’t true, it ought to be.  “The Vengeance of Mothers” reads like a fact-based tale, and the characters are as real as any pioneer woman who braved the rigors of westering.

The book is set in 1876, so it’s clear what the future holds for the Indians.  You know that the years ahead are filled with the carnage and humiliation for the Cheyenne, and that makes you dread the ending of the book.  Fergus is a superb writer, however, and the finale is both clever and satisfying.


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