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Esther Wheelwright, Mother Superior of the Ursulines at Quebec, from a portrait sent to her mother in 1761.
Esther Wheelwright, Mother Superior of the Ursulines at Quebec, from a portrait sent to her mother in 1761.

Review: Biography

Puritan child, native daughter, mother superior Add to ...

In this highly readable and meticulously researched history, Julie Wheelwright explores the long and adventurous life of her distant relative, Esther Wheelwright: "Puritan Child, Native Daughter, Mother Superior." In doing so, Wheelwright provides a fascinating portrait of New England and New France in the 18th century, and of the complex negotiations among the French, the English and the Abenaki as they battled over land, religion and hunting rights.

Wheelwright, the author of a biography of Mata Hari and a history of women who dressed as men ( Amazons and Military Maids), is a precise and inviting historian. Esther, however, has an additional dimension that makes it especially appealing. Wheelwright, who grew up in Canada and now lives in London, includes herself in this narrative. She too knows what it is like to live between two countries and two cultures, and she allows us to see both the personal feelings that fuel her research and those exhilarating moments when she learns some new detail about her kinswoman or, in her imagination, catches a glimpse of Esther in her wigwam or her cell. I should add that there is no blurring here between fact and fiction: Wheelwright always distinguishes between documented truth and speculation. The personal narrative, presented in short, separate chapters threaded throughout the book, is filled with suspense; we yearn, along with the author, to uncover the past.

Esther was born into a tumultuous period of history and into a family much involved in that tumult. Her great great grandfather, a Puritan minister, was banned from preaching first in England and then, soon after he arrived there in 1636, in Boston. The family was exiled to New Hampshire and ended up in Wells, Maine, where Esther's father, John, had a share in a sawmill, ran a public house and farmed. Sundays were days of intense religious obligation, and in the tiny new church, Esther, at the age of 5 or 6, would have listened to sermons that lasted two hours.

In those days, Wells was a frontier town at the mercy of both the French and the Abenaki. Many of the Abenaki had converted to Catholicism and joined the French in regarding the English as heathens. Meanwhile, the English exacerbated the situation by their greed for land and their disregard of treaties. In August, 1703, the Abenaki raided a number of villages, including Wells. A warrior slung seven-year-old Esther over his shoulder and carried her off. Along with 68 other captives, she was marched almost 125 miles to the village of Norridgewock.

Wheelwright is at pains to give a fair portrait of the Abenaki and their generally kind treatment of Esther. Once she had arrived at the village, she would have been stripped of her European clothes, smeared with golden yellow bear grease to protect her from insects, and dressed in Indian garments. Her Abenaki family soon "became attached to this child with extraordinary affection." Esther did chores, learned the language and, crucially, was given Catholic baptism. "After only a few months with the Abenakis," Wheelwright tells us, "Esther would have been barely recognizable to her English family."

But once again, Esther was taken from her family. Through a complex series of machinations, she came to Quebec City and, despite her father's repeated efforts to ransom her, entered the Ursuline convent there. Wheelwright does not claim to understand her relative's vocation, but she writes with great sympathy about the harrowing choice that Esther, still only a girl, faced: Enter the convent and be saved, or return to Wells and be damned. She chose the former and rose to the rank of mother superior.

The world, however, was not done hurling surprises her way. In 1759, the English began to bombard Quebec City and Esther found herself again under fire. All her considerable diplomatic skills were needed to bring the convent safely through the siege of Quebec. In these chapters, I was cheering on both Esther and her author.

The journey ends successfully for each. Esther achieved the peaceful death she craved. As for Julie Wheelwright, she remarks, "My research into Esther's life has opened my eyes and my ears to another way of understanding the past." It is our great good fortune that she shares that understanding with her readers. We too, in these pages, learn the enduring power of story.

Margot Livesey grew up in Scotland and now lives mostly in Boston. Her most recent novel is The House on Fortune Street.

 

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