Margot Mifflin sketches out a life in fine detail in her book The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman (Bison Books, 2011). Although an historical account, it rouses strong metaphors with timeless applications: the idea of what marks us, that which comprises our stories and how they are interpreted, appropriated or manipulated.
The book spans the life of Olive Oatman from the time she was a thirteen-year-old Mormon pioneer traveling westward from Illinois with her family in 1851 until her death at age sixty-six in 1903. Her mother, father and all but two of her siblings were massacred on the trail to the promised land—their “Zion” in the Colorado Gila River Basin. Captured and enslaved by the Indians who killed her family, she lived with them for a year before being traded to the Mohaves, who adopted her as one of their own. They tattooed her face—a regular practice of their culture, given to their own—a blue ornament she wore on her chin for the rest of her life, even as she, five years after being kidnapped, assimilated back into white culture. There is historical evidence that Olive lived happily with the Mohaves and her return to white society was not a welcome one. Once returned to her former life, she faced the challenges of being a “marked woman.” She commodified her experience and manipulated her story in order to harmonize once again with whites, but bore the pain of being torn from her birth family and then her adopted Mohave family. Mifflin’s research includes historical records, Olive’s letters and journals as well as those of friends and relatives.
Mifflin’s vivid prose brings a story from a bygone time to life. She incorporates details which lend a presence and immersion in the history—accessibility into a long-ago time—and an understanding of the individual life, the times, the culture and the hardships. She recounts small particularities of day-to-day life, its order and purpose, which results in great readability. The book’s deep and wide research creates a solid foundation upon which to build Olive’s story. Original photos and illustrations contribute a roundness.
Olive’s history is clear enough through her captivity, but the picture muddies after she is returned to white culture. The question arises: who tells the stories? who owns them? The flavor, color, perspective of her own story were imposed upon her. Here is where Mifflin sifts through the writing of her story by a biographer with his own motives and message, Olive’s recounts of her story on the lecture circuit (which she twists to present a story whose purpose was to propel her back into white culture, aspects of which she manipulated in order to validate her femininity and propriety) and information from letters Olive and family members wrote. Mifflin also takes a close look at anthropological information about the Indian tribes with whom Olive lived to connect Olive’s likely experience with, response to and feelings about her captors. Mifflin deduces Olive’s responses and emotions about captivity by searching out the broader context of the Mohave culture and pulls the story into sharp, decisive, coherent and authoritative perspective.
But aside from an interesting piece of history and Mifflin’s thorough attempts at extrapolating as much truth as possible, it also raises and answers questions about the sociocultural interpretations of that which marks one as “other.” Olive’s tattoo was a cultural narrative which implied certain ideas and defined her according to the cultural norms. Think of tattoo as story, as history, as symbol; tattoo as communication, expression, as signifier. Olive’s tattoo told her story—even if she might have chosen to keep silent, the tattoo spoke for her. Olive could not conceal her history—it was her voice. It spoke of her permanent entanglement and membership outside of white culture. Her true voice? It is difficult to know. She was silenced in part by her gender, in part by her ordeal and ultimately by her death. A pioneer Hester Prynne. Because of her tattoo, she could not be fully reclaimed in the white world. And her blue markings hinted at some taboo of sexual perversion—the unknown. It does not matter if her history was misunderstood, it was implied by the fears of the white gaze. It was interpreted. Her tattoo was a “token of crossed borders” and established her otherness. Here is where Mifflin shines: in her attempt to return Olive’s history to Olive—to reclaim her voice. Mifflin relies heavily on history and in her thoroughly researched and detailed book, there is no undercurrent of agenda.
In The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman, Margot Mifflin gives an account of a woman’s life in a time when women mattered little. And through her richly detailed and widely researched account, a picture of a complex life emerges, with implications for contemporary feminist thought and that which marks any individual as Other.
Book Giveaway Winner!
Congratulations to Tammy, our randomly chosen winner who will receive a copy of Margot Mifflin’s The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman! Thanks to all who read the review and participated in our book giveaway!