Ann M. Little, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2016.

Ann M. Little, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2016. $40.00, £27.00, ISBN 978-0300218213 (hardcover), pp. xvi + 286.

Reviewed by: Margaret Susan Thompson, Syracuse University, December 2016


Ann Little begins this fascinating microhistory with an implicit question: Why is the face of a fully habited nun displayed among the colonial portraits along the walls of the Massachusetts Historical Society? Who was this woman, and how does she come to appear in this setting? The answer is the subject of Little’s biography. Esther Wheelwright (1696–1780) was born into a Puritan family in the town of Wells, Massachusetts (in what is now the state of Maine), in 1696. At the age of seven, she was one of several colonists captured by the Wabanaki Indians, a Catholic tribe from across the permeable boundary with Canada; during her time with them, Esther was converted to Catholicism. Five years later, the girl was taken by a missionary priest to live with Québec’s French colonial governor, who placed her in a school run by the Ursuline nuns, founded decades earlier by Marie of the Incarnation. At the age of fourteen, Esther petitioned to be admitted to the monastery, where she was clothed as a choir nun and lived the remainder of her life—including three terms as Mother Superior—until her death in 1780, aged 84.

The story sounds straightforward, but Little’s account of it suggests otherwise. Consider that Wheelwright herself left no memoir, either in the form of a ‘captivity narrative’, or of her years as an Ursuline. There is no spiritual diary, and her correspondence, even from her years in monastic leadership, is incomplete. As Little herself acknowledged in an interview earlier this year, “This was an impossible book to write”.[1]For example, Little knows that Wabanaki captives were typically given new names, but does not know which was given to Esther. So she designates her “Mali”—a Native corruption of “Mary” that was reflective of indigenous difficulty with the letter “r” and also of the proudly Catholic religiosity of this people. Her decision to do so is persuasively rendered. The result, like nearly all of this book, is both readable and informative.

The ‘captivities’ (plural) denoted in the title refer not just to Esther’s abduction from her original family, but also to the many and diverse restrictions on physical freedom and personal agency—resulting from cultural norms, communal expectations, and even dress codes—that she experienced in all four of the communities in which she lived: colonial Puritan, Wabanaki (also called ‘Abenaki’), French Canadian gentry, and conventual. Yet there is a certain irony in her use of this term—Little also makes clear that, in each context, Esther lived in ‘female worlds of love and ritual’ where women exercised more spiritual, political and social authority than might popularly be assumed. The boundaries between limits and liberation are consistently blurred and unexpectedlypermeable, as were the lines in each of these communities between the sacred and the secular. Thus, as Little argues in her introduction, ‘a goal of [the] book is to demonstrate that there were more compelling similarities in women’s lives across these borders than there were differences’ (p. 5). Little notes that, during her research for the volume, she discovered that ‘Esther’s life among the Ursulines represented not a radical departure from her life in an English colonial outpost or a Wabanaki community, but rather, evidence of intriguing continuities that helped explain Esther’s choices in adolescence and adulthood’ (p. 12).

Little is careful throughout her account to distinguish between her informed speculations (e.g., the name “Mali”) and that which she could document explicitly. In so doing, the author offers important methodological and interpretive insights that scholarly readers will find constructive—but not to an extent that is intrusive to the enjoyment of less specialized individuals. Little also identifies that which she cannot do. She acknowledges that ‘although we can get close to understanding Esther Wheelwright’s world and individual experiences, we can’t know much about her inner life.’ (p. 15.) Instead, Little presents her as someone best understood within the contexts of the various worlds, largely female, in which her days are lived out: ‘Only in context does her life and work become clear to us, and that context is the busy days, weeks, and years of work, prayer, conflict and love that bound her to other women’ (p. 15). Therefore, as with other exemplary microhistories (Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115thStreetand Linda Gordon’s Great Arizona Orphan Abductioncome to mind), the book’s narrative is enriched by explorations of what can be known of those worlds.

Many Captivitiesis not the first biography of Esther Wheelwright to be written. ‘Thy Hand Shall Lead Me’, by amateur historian Gerald Kelly, was never published but is archived at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Another book-length account was published in 2011, Esther: The Remarkable True Story of Esther Wheelwright—Puritan Child, Native Daughter, Mother Superior, by distant descendant Julie Wheelwright and served as the basis for a screenplay by the same author. Little acknowledges this precursor and describes it as ‘beautifully written’ (p. 239), but it is more a narrative and account of the writer’s journey of family discovery. What Little has done, in contrast, is a real piece of scholarship, and relies only cursorily on what her predecessors have done.

It should be clear by now that this reviewer regards Many Captivities as a book most deserving of readers’ attention. But it needs to be noted that those who are most interested in the sections on Esther’s life as a member of the Québec Ursulines, and especially those who are experts in the history of monasticism or women religious, will find some frustrating and annoying errors. For example, Little conflates the clothing and final profession rituals more than once (pp. 132, 142); elsewhere, she refers to the nuns’ vows as ‘sacramental’ (p. 106). More surprisingly, throughout the endnotes, the name of historian Elizabeth Rapley, author of numerous important books on early modern religious life (e.g., The Dévotes, A Social History of the Cloister, The Lord as Their Portion) is unaccountably and repeatedly rendered as ‘Diane’. Glitches like these are far from fatal, but it is a shame that they were not caught and corrected before publication. Little is not an expert on monasticism or nuns, but closer consultation with someone who was might have been advisable. 

Still, this is unquestionably a book that should be read by scholars of women religious as well as those interested in gender, colonialism, and culture in the early modern world. It provides a good template for how the history of sisters can be incorporated into the larger stories of the worlds in which they lived, prayed, and ministered, and is indicative of how sisters’ histories can be interwoven with those of their secular contemporaries. Many Captivitiescontains important interventions into understandings of ethnic identity and class in the early modern and colonial worlds. As one whose own ethnicity and status were repeatedly renegotiated, Wheelwright’s life exemplifies the extent to which these attributes were, and were perceived as, variously permanent and traversable. Little uses Esther’s story ‘as a means of understanding the work and lives of the communities of women she lived and worked in her entire life…. about families that are formed by choice as well as by blood’ (pp. 239–40).  

Was Esther Wheelwright, then, extraordinary—or was she representative of the women of her age? The answer is neither—and both. Her biography is enthusiastically recommended.