You may never have heard of Olive Oatman, but if you are a fan of Hell on Wheels, you’ve seen her tattoo, which is exactly replicated on Eva, the camp whore who is in love with Elam Ferguson.
Eva’s story is fiction, but that’s not unusual. We learn, reading The Blue Tattoo, that Olive’s story was fictionalized many times, during her lifetime and since.
Olive Oatman was fourteen years old when her family’s covered wagon was attacked by Indians. They were massacred and left for dead except for Olive and her younger sister Mary Ann, who were taken as slaves by the Yavapais. After a year of slavery and abuse, the girls were sold to the Mohaves, where their lives improved considerably. Olive lived among the Mohaves for four years before her “rescue” and return to white society. After her return, she met a preacher, Royal Stratton, who wrote a book about her, and she joined him on the lecture circuit.
Margot Mifflin has written a fascinating story about a woman shrouded in falsehoods and contradiction.
In Hell on Wheels, Elam sees Eva’s tattoo as a sign that she has been a slave like him, and she doesn’t contradict him Indeed, Olive claimed in lectures that her tattoo was a specific design used only on slaves, but Mifflin’s research proves otherwise. In fact, Mohaves tattooed only their own; they believed the tattoos were needed in the afterlife, so that Mohaves could recognize each other.
There are many facets to The Blue Tattoo, and all of them are engagingly written. We learn about the sometimes bleak journey West for pioneers (I was reminded of the film Meek’s Cutoff). We learn a little about the early Mormons, as the Oatmans were religious pilgrims, not fortune-seekers. The massacre itself is gruesomely vivid, and then we get a look at two very different Southwest Indian tribes. Meanwhile, the journey of Lorenzo Oatman and the “rescue” efforts read like an adventure. After Olive returns to white society, we explore the role of women in that society, as well as the literary tradition of the “captivity story.” It’s all very briskly paced.
Mifflin works hard to let us know Olive herself; who appeared to have been happy among the Mohave, but condemned them afterwards, who rarely smiled, yet could joke in her correspondence, who was shy, yet spent years on the lecture circuit. In the end, she remains something of a mystery, and yet, a mystery I cared about.
The Blue Tattoo was an accidental discovery—I was looking for Hell on Wheels fan art. When I kindly received a review copy, I dug in with a fever. Part of my delight in Hell on Wheels is my love of this era in general. Most Westerns tell a post-Civil War tale; the pioneer stories are pre-Civil War and underrepresented.