Bordewich, Fergus M. 1948(?)–

views updated

Bordewich, Fergus M. 1948(?)–

PERSONAL: Born c. 1948, in New York, NY; son of LaVerne Madigan (a government aid agency administrator).

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Amistad Press, 10 E. 53rd St., 7th Fl., New York, NY 10022. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Writer and journalist.


Cathay: A Journey in Search of Old China (nonfiction), introduction by Jan Morris, Prentice-Hall (New York, NY), 1991.

Peach Blossom Spring: Adapted from a Chinese Tale (folklore), illustrated by Yang Ming-Yi, Green Tiger Press (New York, NY), 1994.

Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing of Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century (nonfiction), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1996.

My Mother's Ghost (memoir), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2001.

Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement (nonfiction), Amistad (New York, NY), 2005.

Contributor to New York Times, Smithsonian, American Heritage, Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and Reader's Digest.

SIDELIGHTS: Fergus M. Bordewich has written books on a number of nonfiction subjects, including the Underground Railroad, the contemporary state of Native-American culture and identity, and his own mother's work among the Native Americans. He has traveled widely as a journalist and published many articles in periodicals about American history, human rights, and other issues. Growing up in Yonkers, New York, he lived near a neighborhood that was said to have a great heritage of activity in the Underground Railroad, a network of safe-houses set up by concerned people in the years prior to the U.S. Civil War, through which escaped slaves from the South were able to make their way north to safety in Canada. Later in life, he researched the area near his home and found that most of the stories were not based in fact, but these tales of the Underground Railroad remained an inspiration to Bordewich nevertheless. The importance of helping downtrodden people was demonstrated to him early by his mother, who, although she was of Irish descent, was a tireless worker for the rights of Native Americans. She traveled throughout the country in her position as director of the Association on Bureau of Indian Affairs, and her son frequently went with her, learning firsthand about the life of modern Native Americans.

Bordewich addressed the question of Native-American identity in his book Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing of Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century. His aim was to clarify the distorted image of Native Americans in the 1990s. Bordewich posits that the white man's culture has always used the Native Americans as a means to define what is good and bad about Western culture. He gives examples of this, and also demonstrates the ways in which Native Americans themselves have played into these cultural stereotypes. He states that Native Americans have been portrayed as either noble, spiritually superior, natural people or as brutal, ignorant savages, depending on what ends need to be met by the characterization. Bordewich argues that neither of these images is correct or timely, and he seeks to offer an accurate picture of the Native American today.

Assessing this book in Social Science Journal, Thomas J. Hoffman commented that Bordewich's "style is that of a journalist: he tells stories, interprets them, and then comments on their implications. Therein lies the deceptive charm … and the fatal flaw of this work." In Hoffman's opinion, Bordewich does not succeed in his quest to offer a balanced discussion of the issue of tribal sovereignty, but instead lets his bias against this concept show through. "Bordewich is a fine storyteller," the critic concluded, "and an occasionally subtle advocate of certain social and political positions. He has presented some stories of some real, flesh and blood Indians. However, although his intent was to do so, he has not removed distortion from the American imagination." On the other hand, Booklist contributor Ray Olson gave unequivocal praise to the author for his "hefty, engrossing" book and his in-depth, even-handed examination of Native-American culture.

Bordewich recalls his mother's vibrant life and her horrible death in his memoir My Mother's Ghost. As a young person, the author saw his mother, LaVerne Madigan, as an heroic figure. Brilliant, energetic, and determined to bring justice to oppressed people, she earned a college degree at a time when few women did so, worked to help interred Japanese Americans during World War II, and eventually took charge of a national relief agency for Native Americans. After Bordewich, who was then fourteen years old, begged her to go horseback riding with him one day, she was killed in a violent accident. The trauma and guilt linked to her demise has cast a shadow over Bordewich's life. He followed in his mother's footsteps, confronting the Ku Klux Klan as a civil rights worker, but eventually fell into depression and alcoholism. "Bordewich's pace remains as steady as his unflinching reporter's eye as he recounts his own remarkable life, then sets about dismantling the myths of his ancestors in an effort to exorcise his mother's ghost," explained Amber Nimocks in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Booklist reviewer Patricia Monaghan called My Mother's Ghost a "gripping, unforgettable memoir" that proves the author to be "a master of pacing, sensuous detail, and filmlike narrative."

In Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America Bordewich takes a penetrating look at the secret network that helped so many slaves to reach freedom. He describes many of the people who made this system work, both famous and obscure. Charles L. Lumpkins, a Library Journal reviewer, recommended this book as "a rich, spellbinding, and readable narrative." A Publishers Weekly reviewer echoed that praise, calling Bound for Canaan "a clear, utterly compelling survey of the Railroad." Numerous reviewers pointed out the author's skill in showing the complex interplay between abolitionists, slaves, freed blacks, and other parties involved in making the Railroad work, as well as his ability to make his characters and their era come alive. The Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded: "All emerge as fully realized characters, flawed but determined people doing what they believed was right."



Bordewich, Fergus M., My Mother's Ghost, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2001.


American Heritage, April, 2001, review of My Mother's Ghost, p. 14.

Booklist, June 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Peach Blossom Spring: Adapted from a Chinese Tale, p. 1835; February 15, 1996, Ray Olson, review of Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing of Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century, p. 970; November 15, 2000, Patricia Monaghan, review of My Mother's Ghost, p. 589; February 1, 2005, Vernon Ford, review of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, p. 933.

Current Anthropology, August-October, 1998, Les W. Field, review of Killing the White Man's Indian, p. 583.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 28, 2001, Amber Nimocks, review of My Mother's Ghost.

Hollywood Reporter, April 11, 2005, Gregory McNamee, review of Bound for Canaan, p. 28.

Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2005, review of Bound for Canaan, p. 94.

Library Journal, February 1, 2005, Charles L. Lumpkins, review of Bound for Canaan, p. 95.

New Republic, July 8, 1996, Richard White, review of Killing the White Man's Indian, p. 37.

Publishers Weekly, December 21, 1990, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Cathay: A Journey in Search of Old China, p. 371; May 16, 1994, review of Peach Blossom Spring, p. 63; January 1, 1996, review of Killing the White Man's Indian, p. 63; November 6, 2000, review of My Mother's Ghost, p. 80; January 31, 2005, review of Bound for Canaan, p. 56.

Social Science Journal, January, 1999, Thomas J. Hoffman, review of Killing the White Man's Indian, p. 185.


Fergus Bordewich Home Page, (July 8, 2005).