American biography in the age of the Human Stain

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

As you while away the hours today waiting to vote tomorrow, and/or obsessively clicking on political news stories and the latest, last polls–click on over to my refreshing, totally non-political chat with Sara Damiano at the Junto about The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright.  Sara asked what I’d like people to take away from my book about a woman I say has been “doomed to obscurity:” Continue reading

Teaser Tuesday: What was it like to visit the Château Saint-Louis?

Samuel de Champlain presides over the Upper City of Quebec and the Chateau Frontenac

Samuel de Champlain presides over Cap Diamant and the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City

In today’s Teaser Tuesday, in which I present a snippet from my new book The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright and share a little information from behind the scenes, we follow Mali/Esther as she crosses the border into the city of Québec in the autumn of 1708.  She was probably in the company of one of the mission priests who had worked with Wabanaki people for nearly thirty years, Jacques Bigot.  When she arrived, she was installed at the home of the elderly Governor of New France, Philippe de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil. With his significantly younger Acadian-born wife, Louise-Élisabeth de Joybert, Marquise de Vaudreuil, he spent most of the 1690s and 1700s filling up their châteaux in Montreal and then in Québec with their eleven children, so Mali would have been in the company of a number of children close to her in age.

With her move to Québec, Mali moved into a highly status-conscious world dominated by French- and Canadian-born nobles.  Why would a New England-born Wabanaki twelve year-old be taken into the home of the governor of New France?  Read on and enjoy this excerpt from chapter 3 and a little smidge from chapter 4: Continue reading

Teaser Tuesday: Cannibalism, whaaaat?

James Peachey, ca. 1785, Library and Archives Canada

James Peachey, ca. 1785, Library and Archives Canada

Remember a few weeks back when I asked “What’s for breakfast in early New England?”  Today’s Teaser Tuesday from my new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwrightis about food as well, although it’s not nearly as savory as my earlier exploration of colonial foodways.  Indeed, today write about the privation that many Wabanaki people suffered as a result of the cycles of warfare and famine that were unleashed by colonialism in Acadia.

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

All of the available evidence suggests that the people that Esther (or as I rename her in chapter 2, Mali) lived with for five years often suffered from extreme hunger.  When once I imagined Esther at age 7 skipping off into captivity in August enjoying the bounties of the blueberry and salmon harvests, the brutal reality that awaited me in the archives was of nearly unrelieved suffering, especially of children, as you will see if you read on.

This excerpt is like last week’s, from chapter 2, as Esther followed her captors into the Maine woods, and explores a recurrent calumny we see in intercultural conflict in the early modern period:  cannibalism!  Continue reading

Teaser Tuesday: How and why did Esther become Mali?

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

We’re back again on another Tuesday with yet another free sample from my new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwrightthis time from chapter 2, in which Esther is taken captive by the Wabanaki, who care for five years, from age 7 to 12.  How did Wabanaki women and men go about turning little Anglo-American girls and boys into their daughters and sons?  Unfortunately, that’s something that Esther never wrote about or described in any detail at all in any of the documents that record her life.  Chapter 2 is probably the chapter that stretched my imagination the most–you tell me if it ventures too far from history and veers into fiction.

One of my techniques in writing this book was to imagine the bodily sensations Esther might have experienced at each stage of her life and journey.  You’d be surprised how generative it is to ask simple questions like,  was Esther warm or cold?  What was she wearing? What did she eat for supper? Whose bed or blanket did she share at night? Throughout my career as a scholar, clothing has always struck me as a vitally important issue in cross-cultural encounters in early North America–everyone talks or writes about it, and moreover it’s also a vehicle for thinking about labor, trade, politics, and cultural change.

Here’s a little sample of how I approach Esther’s introduction to life among the Wabanaki.  I introduce here a recurring motif through the book of Esther being stripped of her clothing and redressed in garments appropriate to the new culture she’s living in and/or the new stage of life she has entered. Continue reading

The captivity and redemption of Derek Black, or, the power of education and engagement

Derek Black, photo by Matt McClain in the Washington Post, October 16, 2016

Derek Black, photo by Matt McClain in the Washington Post, October 16, 2016

I know this blog has been a little heavy on the book promotion these days, but here’s a modern captivity narrative with that most elusive of all endings, a happy one!  Drop what you’re doing now and go read Eli Saslow’s “The White Flight of Derek Black” in today’s Washington Post, which describes the disenchantment of one of the young scions of white nationalism over the past eight years.  Derek Black, the son of Stormfront founder Don Black and the godson of David Duke, has renounced his former views and apologizes for participating in the racist movement.

What caused this charming, homeschooled, young white supremacist to change his views over the past eight years, from age 19 to 27?  In one word:  college.  Specifically, a liberal arts college, where he majored in history with an emphasis in medieval Europe. Continue reading

Historiann on The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast!

twoilhpodcastHey, Kids–go to iTunes or just click here to hear my interview with The Way of Improvement Leads Home‘s John Fea and Drew Dyrli Hermeling about my new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright.  We all had a great time recording this and talking to one another.  I was extremely gratified to hear how much John and Drew like the book, especially because John is an important historian of religion, and I’ve been a little nervous about what those folks might think of my treatment of the subject (which is pretty extensive, given that there is a giant nun face on the cover of the book!)

The subject of this episode was not just Esther Wheelwright, but biography in general.  John’s first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home:  Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), was a biography of a young early American diarist.  In the podcast, he reflects on some contrasting reviews this book received.  One review described it as a “deeply sympathetic” biography, which made him reflect on whether or not he had achieved objective distance from his subject; and another, which called Fithian “an insufferable prig and schlemiel,” which made John feel defensive:  “How dare this historian describe Philip this way?  I felt like I needed to defend a friend from a bully.” Continue reading

Teaser Tuesday: What’s for breakfast in early New England?

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

Readers of my book in my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright might well wonder:  is Ann Little a huge glutton?  Or was it just too close to lunchtime when she wrote some of these chapters?  To answer your questions:  yes, and almost certainly!  What’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? are questions on my mind every day, so I thought it would be an interesting question to answer when writing about Anglo-Americans, Native Americans, and French Canadians alike.

The answer to that question–what’s for dinner?–was also an interesting way to explore some of the differences as well as some significant similarities among the peoples of the northeastern borderlands.  As it turns out, the answer to that question was a lot more similar when comparing early New England and Wabanaki communities; when Esther moved into the Governor’s mansion, the Château Saint-Louis, in Québec, that’s when her diet took a gratifyingly rich and nutritious swerve, one that was for the most part sustained inside the walls of the Ursuline convent.  Future Teaser Tuesdays will explore the what’s for dinner? and the what’s for supper? questions in those locations.

My excerpt today is once again from chapter one, which focuses on Esther’s life from birth to her capture at age seven.  In addition to answering the question what’s for breakfast?, it also tells you a little bit about who made that breakfast and did the other work around the household, so as to give some insight into the division of labor in an Anglo-American family.  (FYI, the Hannah I write about here is Esther’s elder sister by two years.  I also introduce you to some other family members in this chapter, but their relationship to her is clearer in this excerpt.) Continue reading