The 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.”