The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman

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Overview


In 1851 Olive Oatman was a thirteen-year old pioneer traveling west toward Zion, with her Mormon family. Within a decade, she was a white Indian with a chin tattoo, caught between cultures. The Blue Tattoo tells the harrowing story of this forgotten heroine of frontier America. Orphaned when her family was brutally killed by Yavapai Indians, Oatman lived as a slave to her captors for a year before being traded to the Mohave, who tattooed her face and raised her as their own. She was fully assimilated and perfectly happy when, at nineteen, she was ransomed back to white society. She became an instant celebrity, but the price of fame was high and the pain of her ruptured childhood lasted a lifetime.

Based on historical records, including letters and diaries of Oatman’s friends and relatives, The Blue Tattoo is the first book to examine her life from her childhood in Illinois—including the massacre, her captivity, and her return to white society—to her later years as a wealthy banker’s wife in Texas.

Oatman’s story has since become legend, inspiring artworks, fiction, film, radio plays, and even an episode of Death Valley Days starring Ronald Reagan. Its themes, from the perils of religious utopianism to the permeable border between civilization and savagery, are deeply rooted in the American psyche. Oatman’s blue tattoo was a cultural symbol that evoked both the imprint of her Mohave past and the lingering scars of westward expansion. It also served as a reminder of her deepest secret, fully explored here for the first time: she never wanted to go home.
 

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Editorial Reviews

Bust
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

Tucson Weekly
In The Blue Tattoo, Margot Mifflin slices away the decades of mytho
— Jon Shumaker
MonstersAndCritics.com

"The Blue Tattoo tells the harrowing story of this forgotten heroine of frontier America. . . . This is a revealing read as it delves into the social morays and prejudice of the time."—Sandy Amazeen, MonstersAndCritics.com

— Sandy Amazeen

GrumpyDan.blogspot.com
"Ms. Mifflin did a amazing job in capturing the life of Olive Oatman; before, during and after her capture by the Indians. This is definitely a winner."
Rain Taxi

"Mifflin, whose admirable and enjoyable book offers analysis of both the reality and the mythology of Oatman''s life, shows that there is much beyond the blue tattoo."—Spencer Dew, Rain Taxi

— Spencer Dew

Internet Review of Books
"The Blue Tattoo is a wonderful peek at an era and a literary genre by a first-class researcher. And if Olive Oatman could time-travel back to read the book, I think she''d be delighted to discover that finally there was a sympathetic author more interested in explaining than exploiting her captivity story."

— Jack Shakely, Internet Review of Books

Elmore Leonard

“Margot Mifflin has written a winner. A young Mormon girl is forced to live with ‘savages.’ And loves it. Returns to civilization to become a serious young woman who falls into pious, manipulative hands. The Blue Tattoo offers quite intense drama along with thorough scholarship.”

—Elmore Leonard, best-selling author of Killshot, Three-Ten to Yuma and Other Stories, and The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories

NewWest.com

"Mifflin does a careful job of reconstructing the fascinating story behind how this woman came to wear that tattoo, ascertaining the most accurate possible accounting of the 1851 murder of Oatman''s family near Yuma, Arizona, her captivity by a band of Yavapai Indians, her sale to the Mohaves, and Oatman''s eventual return to white society."—Jenny Shank, NewWest.com

— Jenny Shank

Overland Journal

"Extremely well written, The Blue Tattoo is unquestionably a significant contribution to Oatman studies."—Deborah and Jon Lawrence, Overland Journal

— Deborah and Jon Lawrence

Feminist Review

“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

Pacific Historical Review
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

Elmore Leonard

“Margot Mifflin has written a winner. . . . The Blue Tattoo offers quite intense drama along with thorough scholarship.”—Elmore Leonard, best-selling author of Three-Ten to Yuma and Other Stories

Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola

“Lucid and engaging, The Blue Tattoo contextualizes Olive Oatman''s life by delving into Mohave culture and history (including interviews with contemporary Mohaves) and by explaining why her story captured the American popular imagination and continued to be retold and revisited so many times, in so many different media.”—Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, editor of Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives

Western American Literature

“Mifflin’s treatment of Olive’s sojourns [provides] an excellent teaching opportunity about America’s ongoing captivation with ethnic/gender crossings.”—Western American Literature
 
 

Irish Times.com

“One can read this work of non-fiction as if it were a sensational novel—with progressive feminist implications.”—Irish Times.com

Tattoo History

“The book’s already received rave reviews, and for good reason. . . . A fascinating dose of both tattoo and American history.”—Tattoo History

Doubleday Book Club

“Mifflin catches the poignancy of this story that manages to combine the conquest of the West, life among its victims and the national myths that justified it.”—Doubleday Book Club

Bust - Elizabeth Quinn

"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
Tucson Weekly - Jon Shumaker

"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
Pacific Historical Review - June Namias

"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
Rain Taxi
"Mifflin, whose admirable and enjoyable book offers analysis of both the reality and the mythology of Oatman''s life, shows that there is much beyond the blue tattoo."

— Spencer Dew, Rain Taxi

Tucson Weekly
"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

Bust
"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

MonstersAndCritics.com
"In 1851 Olive Oatman was a thirteen-year old pioneer traveling west toward Zion, with her Mormon family. Within a decade, she was a white Indian with a chin tattoo, caught between cultures. The Blue Tattoo tells the harrowing story of this forgotten heroine of frontier America. . . . This is a revealing read as it delves into the social morays and prejudice of the time."

— Sandy Amazeen, MonstersAndCritics.com

NewWest.com

"Mifflin does a careful job of reconstructing the fascinating story behind how this woman came to wear that tattoo, ascertaining the most accurate possible accounting of the 1851 murder of Oatman's family near Yuma, Arizona, her captivity by a band of Yavapai Indians, her sale to the Mohaves, and Oatman''s eventual return to white society."

—Jenny Shank, NewWest.com

Overland Journal

"Extremely well written, The Blue Tattoo is unquestionably a significant contribution to Oatman studies."

—Deborah and Jon Lawrence, Overland Journal

Bust

"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

Feminist Review

“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

Pacific Historical Review

"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

Western American Literature

“Mifflin’s treatment of Olive’s sojourns [provides] an excellent teaching opportunity about America’s ongoing captivation with ethnic/gender crossings.”—Western American Literature

 

 

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

Times Literary Supplement

“An important and engrossing book, which reveals as much about the appetites and formulas of emerging mass culture as it does about tribal cultures in nineteenth-century America.”—Christine Bold, Times Literary Supplement

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803211483
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2009
  • Series: Women in the West Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 280
  • Sales rank: 226,240
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Margot Mifflin is an author and journalist who writes about women, art, and contemporary culture. The author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, she has written for many publications, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, the Believer, and Salon.com. Mifflin is an assistant professor in the English Department of Lehman College of the City University of New York (CUNY) and directs the Arts and Culture program at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she also teaches. 
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations viii

Acknowledgments ix

Prologue: Emigrant Song 1

1 Quicksand 9

2 Indian Country 17

3 "How Little We Thought What Was Before Us" 22

4 A Year with the Yavapais 44

5 Lorenzo's Tale 53

6 Becoming Mohave 64

7 Deeper 82

8 "There Is a Happy Land, Far, Far Away" 92

9 Journey to Yuma 100

10 Hell's Outpost 109

11 Rewriting History in Gassburg, Oregon 126

12 Captive Audiences 146

13 "We Met as Friends, Giving the Left Hand in Friendship" 173

14 Olive Fairchild, Texan 182

Epilogue: Oatman's Literary Half-Life 198

Postscript: Letter from Farmington 210

Notes 219

Bibliography 239

Index 255

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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Good book!

    I learned about the Oatman Family Massacre while doing some research on Arizona (was thinking about moving there) and became intrigued by the story. I knew nothing about the event beforehand. When "The Blue Tattoo" by Margot Mifflin was published, I had to read it. Ms. Mifflin did a amazing job in capturing the life of Olive Oatman; before, during and after her capture by the Indians. This is definitely a winner.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 18, 2010

    Not worth the time (or money)

    Truth be told, the excerpt on the cover told the story better than the 209 pages of text.

    What's touted as the biography of "a thirteen-year old pioneer traveling west toward Zion, with her Mormon family"(teaser on cover) is written with an obvious anti-Mormon sentiment. The Oatman family are actually "Brewsterites", a group headed by James Colin Brewster, a self-proclaimed prophet, determined to start his own church after disagreeing with the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Ironically, Mifflin addresses this, but fails to make the distinction between the two religious groups.)

    The Brewsterites were not headed for Zion--which was the community in the Great Basin (now known as the Salt Lake Valley and is still the headquarters for the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--also known as the "Mormons")--but were actually following the Santa Fe Trail "arguing with Brewster about whether to continue to California or settle in Socorro, New Mexico"(pg 23). (Still no distinction is made.)

    The "story" jumped all over the place. Instead of just focusing on Olive and what was known about her. Ms. Mifflin spends pages upon pages telling us about a variety of characters like Olive's brother, Lorenzo; or Sarah Bowman and her "brothel across the river"(pg 113); or James O'Connell, the first tattooed man in America. Understanding that these people were influences in Olive's life is important, I'll concede that fact. But sometimes it felt like we were exploring their histories just for the sake of shock factor.

    Despite all the notes in the back depicting the accuracies in The Blue Tattoo, when it comes to the Mormon portion of it, The Blue Tattoo has many inaccuracies. The most glaring of which is on page 138; "...in the wake of Joseph Smith's lynching...". In reality, the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum were shot--martyred--in Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. This obvious and easily researchable blunder makes me wonder how many other parts of this "biography" are figments of the author's imagination.

    With all of this said, learning about Olive Oatman and her past was intriguing. Yet there is a huge asterisk on that statement because of all the mistakes. Intentional or not, they exist and ruin what could have been a great portrayal of a mysterious historical figure.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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