My fabulous bookclub decided to delve into the world of biography by reading a new book, The Blue Tattoo, by Margot Mifflin. While technically this book fits better in the category of a ‘scholarly’ book on American women’s history, it is a page turner and one that our group unanimously LOVED. It’s the account of young Olive Oatman who was captured by members of the Avapai indian tribe during her Morman family’s ill-fated attempt to reach California in the 1850’s. Most of her large family was murdered but she and her sister Mary Ann survived and were taken captive as slaves for the Avapais. How they survived the massacre and their subsequent year as slaves is fascinating but sometimes difficult reading. In a surprising true life twist, the Avapais are willing to sell the two young girls to Mohave indians and their situation improves immeasurably. Olive and Mary Ann believe their whole family dead (unbeknownst to them, a brother, Lorenzo, also survived) and appear to have assimilated into life as Mohaves. The book’s title comes from the blue Mohave tattoo on Olive’s chin and jawline that forever mark her time among the Native people. It is only some 5 years later, that Olive is ‘ransomed’ and brought back to live in white culture. The second half of the book recounts her life after captivity and the ways in which her story was ‘sold’ across the county and the people who profitted from her experience.
The writing is excellent, the research thorough, and you can take or leave the footnotes as you wish. They are helpful but not distracting. This is honestly a fabulously written book with more discussion topics than you can cover in a single book club meeting.
Chief among them:
What is identity? Who is Olive and how does she understand herself at different periods in the book? Do you think she sees herself as White? Mohave?
What’s the role of religion in Olive’s life over the course of the book? How does it help or hurt her?
Why didn’t anyone go looking for Olive after the massacre? Did her father’s reputation have anything to do with this?
Who was Musk Melon? What was his relationship to Olive?
What did you make of Olive’s Mohave name?
What did you think of Rev. Stratton? How do you view his use of Olive and her story?
What figures are admirable in the account as presented?
Contrast the role of women in the different cultural settings in the book. Where does Olive seem most comfortable and least?
Did you relate at all to Olive’s life? Do you have your own ‘blue tattoo?’
One of the best things about this book is also its relationship to other captivity accounts. There was a body of American literature from the that recounted the lives and experiences of people captured by indians. This was the second book I’ve read on the subject. The first was, The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos. It’s the much earlier story of seven year old Eunice Williams who was ‘stolen’ by Indians in Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1704. The daughter of a Puritan minister, Eunice’s kidnapping was legendary because she was captured by French-speaking Catholic indians during the French and Indian war. Her family sought to ‘redeem’ her for years before learning that she had no interest in rejoining them; she had forgotten English, had married a young Mohawk man. It’s my understanding that the film rights have been purchased for Demos’ book (it’s also serious history), so it may yet be made into a movie.
I read Demos’ book quite a few years ago and remember it as a more dense read than Mifflin’s, but I may well give it another go after reading about Olive.