The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright gets a rave review in the Maine Sunday Telegram

tmcoewcoverThe Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright gets a rave review in this morning’s Maine Sunday Telegram (the Sunday edition of the Portland Press Herald, FYI):

Ann M. Little’s telling of Esther Wheelwright’s story illuminates issues of class, status and gender through the 18th century and across continents.

In her intriguing new biography, “The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright,” Ann M. Little asks a rhetocial question: Why would the portrait of this Ursuline nun be there in the Massachusetts Historical Society collection “amid this collection of prominent Puritans and wealthy merchants, in the company of men she would have disagreed with on nearly every issue, great or small?”

“And yet, there she is,” writes Little, associate professor of history at Colorado State University, “the pink face floating in the glowing white wimple, wearing that determined look.”

For the past year, I’ve wondered if my choice to put her portrait on the cover was the right one.  My initial rationale was, “hey, biographies of the so-called “Founding Fathers” always feature one of their many oil portraits on the cover–my argument here is that Esther Wheelwright is worthy of the same treatment, so of course!”  On the other hand:  what do Anglophone Americans think when they see a nun on the cover of a book?  They probably don’t see “Important Early American,” but rather “representative of subculture” or even “flashback to Catholic school thirty, forty, or fifty years ago!”

This review by William David Barry ratifies my decision to put the portrait on the cover and to write about it on the first few pages.  (Nevertheless, I still wonder:  I just found out yesterday that the book’s Library of Congress call number is in the BX section, with other biographies of famous Catholic religious people.  The portrait of the nun right on the cover probably overdetermined this, but I had wondered if my book would be in the F1-100 section (New England History) or the F1000s (early Quebec).  I never thought I’d have a book in the religious history section, but I understand.

(It’s funny how powerful covers are in determining a book’s initial reception.  I’ve long wondered how my first book might have been received differently had it been subtitled Gender and War rather than War and Gender in Colonial New England.  The first several book reviews it got were all by military historians, whereas the reviews by feminist scholars and women’s historians took years to appear!)

I was also thrilled that Barry clearly gets the point of writing about the “Many Captivities” rather than the captivity (in the singular) of Esther Wheelwright.  More from his review:

Many of the book title’s “captivities” include cultural incarcerations, such as the Colonial-English strictures faced by a girl on the Maine frontier up to the age of 7. This entailed not only fear of the forest, French and Wabanaki, but social barriers (Wheelwright’s family ranked near the top of her community), and confining clothing for miniature adults, such as tiny stays added to as time went on. We are also given speculation as to what toys the child Esther might have owned. Dolls for encouragement of future motherhood were indeed likely.

But this part of the review confused me a little bit:

However, this reviewer, sensitized by the author’s earlier triage on ethnically correct terminology, felt his hackles rise when it was opined that the 7-year-old might have possessed a “Jew’s harp.” I had to stop short. Should I be offended by this dictionary-sanctioned name? The instrument found in nearly every culture and all over the New England colonies was called this at that time. As a reader, it made me question where political correctness and a urge to write a fair and honest story goes astray.

Barry doesn’t explain, so I will:  in trying to write a book I want to appeal to academics and general interest readers in both Canada and the United States, I explain at the start that I try to avoid using terms for Native North American that will alienate people in one or both countries.  So therefore, I don’t use the Canadian terms Indigenous or First Nations peoples, nor do I use the U.S. American term American Indian, and instead strive to be more precise (“Wabanaki,” or “Iroquois,” for example.)

I don’t get it why Barry then suggests that “Jews’ harp” is perhaps “politically incorrect,” when  I make it clear that my concern is not “political correctness,” but rather communicating effectively across international borders.  (Maybe in the age of The Human Stain, attempting to communicate across borders rather than just building a wall is now a “politically correct” activity? )  Also, “Jew” is not an insult or a “politically incorrect” term, unless one believes that calling a person (or a harp) who is Jewish a “Jew” is insulting.

These are quibbles, however.  Barry concludes his review by saying that “the story of Wheelwright is unique in its details, but ends up telling a larger story about the lives of women in the region, as well as religion, warfare, status, human nature and rivalry on a local and world stage. This is a book that deserves a permanent place on any bookshelf dedicated to the history of Maine.”

cowgirlgunsign1If that’s the maximal flak I catch for writing a crossover book, I’ll take it!  Happy Sunday, everyone.  I hope yours is as dry, sunny, and welcoming as ours looks to be out here on the high plains.

26 thoughts on “The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright gets a rave review in the Maine Sunday Telegram

  1. Congrats on the stellar review. I, too, was confused by Barry’s comment about the Jew’s harp. I don’t know why he flagged that as a political correctness issue. I wonder if it was just part of that old-fashioned approach to book reviewing–that there has to be some flaw in the book somewhere. And your choice of putting Esther on the cover was exactly right.


    • Thanks! I’m thrilled.

      I wonder if this is a popular historian vs. academic historian dig, too. Barry has written a lot of books as an independent scholar & writer, and I’ve noticed that a lot of folks like that enjoy playing up their distance from “politically correct” academic culture. (Like Tim Egan, for example–and when he doesn’t have the facts, he just makes up politically correct outrages.)


  2. LC cataloguers do a lot of strange and seemingly arbitrary things (in the history space, at least), in choosing whether to classify books with the vast majority of obviously discipline-centric volumes, or to align them with other artificial sub-categories of human knowledge. Why, for example, is _New York_ Magazine listed at F.128.1 N4, where it crushes into oblivion (called “remote storage” in biblio-techtonic-speak) what’s left of the actual history books written about that benighted province. Whereas _Philadelphia_ Magazine, which debuted in almost the same year, and devotes itself to similarly cutting edge social issues like “Is It Still Better in the Poconos?” is listed as a Social Science, at HC 108. P5 G7, and does its knowledge crushing a full floor below its neighbor? (Why are either of them in history, or in a college library, for that matter?)

    Suitably motivated readers will find your book, wherever it is. _Abraham in Arms_ flies off the shelves, all three copies of it in one library that I frequent. All the while watching nervously across the aisle, as New York Rag, I mean Mag, continues, month after month, year after year, to devour shelf space from scholarly treatments of Dutch divines in New Netherland! (I have pictures of this somewhere).

    The cover is just right, I think. And congrats on the review!

    Liked by 2 people

      • If _Philly Mag_ was in the F’s on 5, slouching toward Bethlehem (PA) shelf-foot by shelf-foot, there would be the end of the Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (better known by his academic nickname, “3 Vols.”) later or probably sooner. Off to “New Jersey” (remote facility). Esther is better off down on 4 in the BX’s, where the revered _Journal of Stochastic Ecclesiastics_ plays nice with shelf-mates, and has no such imperial tendencies with near neighbors.

        Agree with the commenter below, seeking reviews from religious studies and religious history journals would probably pay off nicely. This may be automatic press policy once the LC number is decided.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great review! But yes, the Jew’s Harp reference is truly odd.

    And yes, the decision to put Esther on the cover was right: it puts the problem right there. The LC cataloging decisions are inscrutable, but it’s too bad she’s not with the other Founders Generation…

    Liked by 1 person

    • It would be nice in some respects to share some shelf space there in the Es amidst the S-C-FFs, but there are SO MANY “new” bios of the same old guys shelved there every year she’d be quickly swamped! (Also, it’s not a nationalist story that I tell–my best guess was that it would end up in the F1000s, not the BXs.)


  4. Hurrah! (and I can’t figure out the Jew’s Harp thing either. A glance at Wikipedia suggests that others have come up with the same hypothesis I did off the top of my head — an association with Jewish peddlers — but though there’s a stereotypical element to that association, it’s not really a negative one. I rather like the alternative theory — none of them seem to be confirmed — that “Jew” in this case is a corruption of the French “jeu,” but apparently the OED rejects that one).

    Anyway, a very nice review over all.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, I’ve actually heard people complain about “Jew’s harp” before. I was told that it is a corruption of “jaw harp” (although I like the jeu idea too). And even though it is a very old instrument, it doesn’t have much of a role Jewish traditional music, except recently in vaudeville and borscht belt stuff. Presumably that’s the where the negative connotation comes from.

    No idea if any of this is true, but like I said. Not the first time I’ve heard it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It has no role whatsoever in Jewish music! I assumed the name came from Jewish peddlers, but I like the idea of a “jaw harp,” which makes a lot more sense when you think of it.


  6. Congratulations on the fine review. Don’t worry about the odd classification—it may help you reach an additional pool of readers. On that note, has your publisher sent review copies to journals of religious history? My guess is that they would welcome discussing such an innovative study.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I included Church History on my list of journals to review it–they’ve reviewed a lot of the historiography on North American missions and colonialism very positively.

      I don’t think there’s anything in my analysis that would piss off a devout Catholic. I have to take Esther Wheelwright’s vocation seriously as a historian–esp. a feminist historian writing about a woman who chose a religious life. (I’m not a fan of diagnosing false consciousness in historical actors in any case. I take people seriously when they write down, say, or otherwise indicate their beliefs.)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m in the middle of your book (Esther has just become a novice) and am thoroughly enjoying it. Your discussions of race and class in the convent draw me back to a book I read years ago, Kathryn Burns’ Colonial Habits, (F3611, even with nuns on the cover).


  8. When I hear the name Jew’s harp, it makes me think of the exchange in Rock Island, the first song in The Music Man (i.e., salesmen on the train):

    1st Salesman: Well, I don’t know much about bands, but I do know you can’t make a living selling big trombones, no sir.
    3rd Salesman: Mandolin picks, perhaps and here and there a Jew’s harp.

    The need to buy a new car has scrunched my budget even worse than usual, but maybe I’ll make your book my Xmas present to myself. As a residual Catholic, I have a certain fondness for nuns — most of them I knew were very dedicated and often wonderful women.

    Though my aunt was a bit of a character, even more conservative than many in her conservative order. After she died, I heard that she actually lectured the president of the order (formerly the mother general) about not wearing a veil.


    • You’re right! I forgot about that line in Music Man.

      Keep your dough for your car payment–but if you think of it, ask your local and uni libraries to order copies!


  9. Do you have a preferred retailer for those of us here in the comments section who would like to buy our own copy?
    And what the hell, I’ll add–with no prompting or encouragement whatsoever from our host–that if it’s within our budget, buying is a Good Thing for fans of this blog. gives us prose we value sans ads, sans blegging (nothing necessarily wrong with blegging), and very much avec site hosting expenses + a lot of work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I do the blog because I love it and it doesn’t feel like work. If you get the book, you’ll see that I thank my corner of the blogosphere–not just other bloggers but ALL OF YOU who read and comment here, because I am indebted to you.

      I don’t have a preferred retailer–as you note, no ads here & no kickbacks from Amazon or whatever–so whatever works for you. (If you have an independent book store in your town, see if you can get it from them?)


  10. There is something floating around the cultural smog about the word Jew — it comes up in the “Churched” episode of the TV show Black-ish, in which a coworker of the main character shares that she’s a Jew so she doesn’t go to church, and their (buffoon) boss gets mad at her and sends her to HR for saying “that word.” The comedy format can’t specify what the reasoning is, but it does pinpoint the unease that some people have with the word Jew, with some nebulous concern about racism or PCness wrapped into it. (You could watch a clip at

    Liked by 1 person

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