Friday, February 12, 2010


Just a few days after reading "The Zookeeper's Wife", I have read another non-fiction book that presents a fascinating story in a very  boring way. I'm guessing by its dryness that Margot Mifflin's "The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman" was written - or at least started out - as a master's thesis. (At least the footnotes are all at the back of the book, thank goodness.)

As I already stated, Olive's is a fascinating story. She turned 14 years old while her family was enroute via wagon train to a Mormon settlement out West. Not long after that, the family, who had broken away from the train, was attacked by the Yavapai Indians. Her family was slaughtered, but Olive and her 9-year-old sister Mary Ann were captured as slaves. (The girls and the Yavapai warriros thought that everyone else had perished, but brother Lorenzo did survive, although he suffered a grievous head wound.)

The Yavapais treated them brutally, forcing them into back breaking labor. Mary Ann, especially, who had always been sickly and frail, suffered greatly. After about a year, they were traded to the Mohave Indians, who were kindly toward them and in fact, considered them family members. Olive and Mary Ann thrived for a while in the peaceful world of the Mohaves, who have been described as a friendly and happy people. Sadly, Mary Ann died during a famine that struck the tribe.

In 1858, When Olive was 17, she was "given back" to the white world. Olive and Lorenzo were ultimately reunited and with the help of Royal Baron Stratton, a Methodist Episcopal minister, they published their story. Unfortunately, Stratton badly distorted the facts and inserted his anti-Indian bigotry into the book. In "Life Among the Indians: Being an Interesting Narrative of the Captivity of the Oatman Girls", Stratton "omitted, exaggerated and fabricated information in order to deliver a title that was at once pious and titillating to his publisher."

Despite this, the book was a huge success. It soon became clear that Olive was the "star" of the story, and she went on the road lecturing about her experiences. This lasted for years. She eventually married and moved to Texas, where she lived until her death at the age of 66 in 1903.

Olive was not the only woman to be captured by the Indians and later returned to the whites. But unlike these other storied women, Olive had a permanent, highly visible memento of her time with the Indians - her chin had been tattooed in the traditional Mohave way. In photos of her, the blue markings on her face stand in great contrast to her proper Victorian dress.

Rumors abounded about Olive's time with the Mohave: that she had allowed herself to be tattooed, that she hid herself away during the tribe's lengthy association with the white Whipple party in order not to be returned to the white world, that she had married a Mohave and had children. Regarding the latter, Olive herself never addressed the subject. However, the repressed Victorians of her era presented Olive upon her return as not having been raped by the "savages"; that she was, in fact, still a virgin.

Mifflin has done an excellent job of winnowing out truth from rumor and fiction. Regarding the rumors of a marriage and children while in captivity, it is Mifflin's opinion, from her vast amount of research, that they were untrue. However, Mifflin posits that Olive was probably sexually active during her time with the Indians.

Mifflin believes that Olive had willingly allowed herself to be tattooed by the Mohaves and indeed had become thoroughly assimilated into the tribe, that she had found friends and substitute parents, and that she had formed strong bonds with these people. Although in her lectures Olive portrays both the Yavapai and the Mohaves unfavorably, in early interviews just after her release, she speaks of the Mohaves with love and respect. 

Mifflin concludes that it is likely true that Olive did not want to be repatriated and that she grieved for the rest of her life at having been torn away from her new family. After all, she was with them from the tender age of 14 until 17, four very formative years. Mifflin says social attitudes "likely prevented Oatman from expressing her powerful feelings for the Mohaves."

An undisputed fact is that Olive, who had in esssence become a Mohave, never fully reassimilated into white society. A woman forever suspended between two worlds, she was often portrayed as being "sad".

I remarked at the beginning of this review that Olive's is a fascinating story presented in a boring way. There is just too much background information about Mormon history, Stratton's background, the negotiations for Olive's release, the taming of the West and the Indian wars, the portrayal of women in non-fiction and fiction of the time, etc. etc.

In reviewing "The Zookeeper's Wife", I ascribed the addition of extraneous material to three reasons: That the author had done so much research she didn't want to waste it, that she was so enamored with all that she learned that she just had to share it, and that the story was too short for a full-length book so it was padded.

I add another reason for the length of "The Blue Tattoo": That it began its life as a scholarly treatise.

I understand that "The Blue Tattoo" is part of a series entitled Women of the West. Despite its shortcomings, it is a valuable addition to the series and the literature of frontier women. I am eager to read other stories of white women who lived with Indians, either voluntarily or not. I also recommend an excellent work of fiction on this subject entitled "One Thousand White Women: The Journal of May Dodd", by Jim Fergus.

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