Publishers like it when a book falls into a clearly defined category, especially if that category is a popular one that might rate a table display at a bookstore. A biography of George Washington, obviously, gets shelved with those of other Founding Fathers, and they are all, unquestionably, grouped under the larger heading of “American History.” If you liked that book about George Washington, may we recommend this book about John Adams?
Easy. Clear. No fuzzy boundaries.
I find it pretty impressive, then, when a historian convinces a publisher to take a risk on a book that’s all about fuzzy boundaries. Add in the fact that the subject of said book is a woman—and not only a woman, but a cloistered Catholic nun—and I’m even more impressed. “Biographies of cloistered Catholic nuns” isn’t going to get a table display at your local Barnes & Noble. There may not be enough biographies of cloistered Catholic nuns to fill a table at Barnes & Noble.
If there were, though, I’d hope that they’d all be as thoroughly researched and well written as this one, Colorado State professor Ann Little’s extraordinarily good new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright*, just out from Yale University Press.
Esther Wheelwright was born in Wells, Massachusetts (now part of Maine) in 1696, the fourth of John and Mary Wheelwright’s eventual ten children. The family lived in a garrison house, surrounded by a formidable fence meant to protect the Wheelwrights and their neighbors from Native attacks, which were not uncommon in this frontier community. The garrison’s palisade fence was the most visible boundary circumscribing young Esther’s life, but Little points out many others, from the corset-like stays that encircled her torso to shape it, to the societal expectations of the girl and woman she would become. As Little writes,
But for an accident of fate, [Esther] probably would have grown up to marry, bear children, and die like her sisters as a mostly forgotten woman, her name scratched into a few church and court record books, remembered in our day only by the dissolving letters of a porous gravestone in New England.
In 1703, however, that accident of fate changed the course of Esther’s life: apparently having ventured outside the security of the garrison house, she was captured during a Wabanaki raid on Wells. Esther lived with the Wabanaki for the next five years, most likely treated not as a prisoner but a daughter of the community, and during this time she converted to Catholicism. Through some unclear arrangement, Esther was brought to Québec in 1708, where she initially lived with the governor of New France, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, and was then enrolled in the city’s Ursuline boarding school. This move proved to be Esther’s last: except for one short trip to Montreal in 1711, she lived the remainder of her eighty-four years with the Ursulines—first as a student, then a nun, and eventually Mother Superior.
What was it like for Esther to experience so much upheaval? We can conjecture, but we don’t really know; she didn’t write a captivity narrative or other autobiography, and fragments of her story are scattered among the many different archives that Little consulted. She often doesn’t write about Esther directly, but instead discusses events in other people’s lives that might have been similar to those experienced by Esther. Little admits that the scarcity of source material about Esther herself means she has to engage in a lot of speculation, and she works hard to bolster her suppositions with evidence.
And in some ways those moments of speculation aren’t make-it-or-break-it ones, because this book isn’t just about Esther Wheelwright’s life. It’s a look at the three cultures of the northeast borderlands (Anglo-American, Native American, and French Canadian), and especially their domestic rhythms and material cultures, from the clothes people wore to the foods they consumed. For all the differences among those three cultures, Little is more interested in the similarities, particularly when it comes to gender relations. She emphasizes that the women who surrounded Esther—her family in Wells, the Wabanaki women who raised her, and the other Ursulines—all lived under various forms of captivity, whether physical, legal, or social. At the same time, it’s all relative: “captivity” in one group might have represented liberation from another. For some young women, the rules and restrictions of the cloister might have felt stifling; Little argues, however, that after many years of upheaval and uncertainty, dedication to a lifetime of religious routine might have seemed like a relief to Esther. And within the convent walls, Esther had experiences and opportunities not shared by “free” women outside: she worked as a teacher and needleworker, and rose through the Ursuline administration to occupy various roles before achieving the summit of three terms as Mother Superior.
Everywhere she went, Esther lived in communities of women; while we know so much about the lives of the eighteenth century’s Great White Men, those female communities have been largely overlooked. As exceptional as Esther’s life was, there’s no reason to think that other women in her day didn’t also lead interesting and eventful lives. (Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages* makes a similar argument, also quite successfully.) But again, the lives of those women can be difficult to research, and books about them equally difficult to sell to a publisher.
Esther’s story doesn’t fit cleanly into the narrative of any one nation—not England or the United States, France or Canada. As Little explains, “Each border crossing turns her into a different person who speaks a new language, practices a new religion, wears different clothing, and is embedded within a different family.” Those multiple transformations have made it easy for Esther Wheelwright to fall through history’s metaphorical cracks.
Luckily for Ann Little and Yale University Press, there are plenty of readers out there like me: those who also prefer to dig around in those cracks rather than just accept the biographies of famous men that are presented on the silver platter of a bookstore table display.
* Amazon Associates link. If you make a purchase via this link, I will receive a small commission from Amazon. Thanks for your support! ~Maura