The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman

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A finalist for the 2010 Caroline Bancroft History Prize, The Blue Tattoo is the first modern biography of Olive Oatman. In 1851, 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. Orphaned when her family was killed by Yavapai Indians, Oatman lived as a captive 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. Oatman’s tattoo 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.

The Blue Tattoo was a 2009 Southwest Book of the Year, a 2010 Best of the Best from the University Presses (ALA) selection, a 2014 One Book Yuma read, a 2019 Tucson Weekly “40 Essential Arizona Books” pick, and “highly recommended” on Stuff You Missed in History Class. Featured on the 6/26/24 Empire history podcast.

“Margot Mifflin has written a winner… The Blue Tattoo offers quite intense drama along with thorough scholarship.”  —Elmore Leonard

“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.” —Times Literary Supplement

“Well-researched history that reads like unbelievable fiction.” —Bust Magazine

“An easy, flowing read, one you won’t be able to put down.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“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

 “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

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

“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