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The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman (Women in the West) Paperback – April 1, 2011
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From School Library Journal
This engaging biography examines the life of Olive Oatman, who was 13 years old when Indians attacked her Illinois Mormon family on its journey west; she was subsequently adopted and raised by the Mohave tribe. Mifflin (English, Lehman Coll., CUNY) tells Oatman's story, from the unorthodox religious convictions that led her family west, through her captivity and assimilation into Mohave culture, to her rescue and reassimilation. Mifflin engagingly describes Oatman's ordeal and theorizes about its impact on Oatman herself as well as on popular imagination. The author seeks to correct much of the myth that has sprung up around Oatman, owing partly to a biography written with Oatman's participation during her life. Mifflin takes the position that Oatman was almost fully assimilated into Mohave culture and resisted "rescue," and that her return to mainstream society was a cause of ambivalence, if not anxiety. Though Mifflin sometimes seems a bit eager to make this argument, her book adds nuance to Oatman's story and also humanizes the Mohave who adopted her. Recommended for general readers as well as students and scholars.—Julie Biando Edwards, Maureen & Mike Mansfield Lib., Univ. of Montana, Missoula
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Mifflin engagingly describes Oatman's ordeal and theorizes about its impact on Oatman herself as well as on popular imagination.... Her book adds nuance to Oatman's story and also humanizes the Mohave who adopted her. Recommended for general readers as well as students and scholars."-Library Journal * Library Journal * "Although Oatman's story on its own is full of intrigue, Mifflin adeptly uses her tale as a springboard for larger issues of the time."-Feminist Review * Feminist Review * "Mifflin's treatment of Olive's sojourns [provides] an excellent teaching opportunity about America's ongoing captivation with ethnic/gender crossings."-Western American Literature * Western American Literature * "The Blue Tattoo is well written and well researched; it re-opens the story of white women and men going West and Native people trying to survive these travels."-June Namias, Pacific Historical Review -- June Namias * Pacific Historical Review * "In The Blue Tattoo, Margot Mifflin slices away the decades of mythology and puts the story in its proper historical context. What emerges is a riveting, well-researched portrait of a young woman-a survivor, but someone marked for life by the experience."-Jon Shumaker, Tucson Weekly -- Jon Shumaker * Tucson Weekly * "The Blue Tattoo is well-researched history that reads like unbelievable fiction, telling the story of Olive Oatman, the first tattooed American white woman. . . . Mifflin weaves together Olive's story with the history of American westward expansion, the Mohave, tattooing in America, and captivity literature in the 1800s."-Elizabeth Quinn, Bust -- Elizabeth Quinn * Bust *
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Olive Oatman was a 14-year-old member of a Mormon splinter group. Her family was killed by Yavapai en route between Tucson and Yuma in 1851, and she and her younger sister were first enslaved by the Yavapai, then sold to the Mohave. The Mohave raised them as members of the tribe; her sister died, but Olive was returned to white society after five years with the two Indian tribes.
The author has practiced source criticism on the various accounts of Oatman's life, discounting distortions introduced to serve various political and social biases. The resulting narrative is a fascinatingly ambiguous story. Was Olive better off as an Indian or white woman? It's hard to tell, but clearly she had warm feelings for her former "captors" when she met one of them in later life. The sexual, social, and racial norms of the time are called into question by the story of her life.
As history goes, the book is an easy and compelling read -- I finished it in a couple of days. It's a thought-provoking contribution to the literature of white captives of American Indians.
The book started out well, but I just can't accept the author's premise that Olive, after her return from living with the Mohave tribe, was essentially held "captive" by the Reverend Royal B. Stratton, who wrote a highly falsified book about her life. Stratton's book portrayed the Mohave as ignorant savages and claimed Olive's tattoo was a mark of slavery, when the reality-- according to Olive's own testimony before meeting Stratton-- was that the tattoo was a sign of membership in the tribe, and Olive had a deep fondness, affection, and gratitude to the Mojave, who had rescued her from another tribe who had killed most of her family, kidnapped Olive and her sister, and treated them harshly. In fact, Olive had ample opportunities to escape or be rescued and never availed herself of these chances. Clearly she was not unhappy with the Mohave. Stratton was something of a white supremacist, and it has been suggested that Olive was so much under his thrall that she altered her testimony of her time with the Mojave against her own will to fit Stratton's twisted portrayal.
I can't accept this image of Olive's victimhood under Stratton, for several reasons. First, there is no indication that Olive, even at the outset before he could have had any deep influence over her, objected to or asked Stratton to correct the misrepresentations in his book. She seemed to accept the book wholesale and uncritically right from the beginning. Second, although Olive lived with Stratton and his wife for a time, the book mentions that Stratton eventually moved and Olive decided to take up residence elsewhere, with no objection from Stratton and no attempt to keep her under his control. In fact, they eventually simply lost touch, though Olive was still a potentially "marketable" commodity. Third, Olive lectured extensively all by herself-- without Stratton-- on her experiences with the Mohave, and yet without him present or able to hear what she said, she nonetheless perpetuated the image of the Mohave as primitive subhumans, an image which had sold countless copies of Stratton's book.
I'm afraid that what I take away from this is that Olive may not have been an especially admirable person. She no doubt profited from Stratton's books and her resultant lecture tours, and it seems she caved in, all on her lonesome, to the temptation to earn a dollar at the expense of the truth about the Mohave who had been so kind to her. There just isn't any evidence in this book that Stratton had any kind of power or hold over her. It's tempting to want to portray Olive as Stratton's innocent victim, but I think the truth is much more ordinary and less sensational than that.