Heading Home for Thanksgiving

As I write this, My Own True Love and I are packing for the drive from Chicago to my hometown in the Missouri Ozarks to spend the holiday with my family. As usual, the list of things I wanted to accomplish before we hit the road is longer than the time available to do them. And as usual, I am editing the list down from things I want to do to things I need to do. One thing I refused to edit off the list was this blog post.

People sometimes ask me why I write this blog, especially when I’m under the gun with a book deadline. (Don’t get me started!) The answer is simple: all of you. You don’t just read my posts. You send me comments and ideas, ask hard questions, point out the typos, and cheer me on.  Thank you for being on this journey with me, whether you’ve been reading me from the beginning or you’ve just found me. There’s a lot more history out there to explore and I look forward to sharing it with you.


And speaking of sending me ideas, I getting ready to send out invitations to my annual Women’s History Month extravaganza of mini-interviews.* If you “do” women’s history in any format, or know someone who does, or just have an idea of someone you would love to see in the series, let me know. (With the caveat that I may not be able to get a big name writer to respond without a connection of some kind.)

*Some of you who know me in real life are probably saying “Are you crazy???!!!” To which I say, “yes, I am crazy” and “yes, I am doing this.”

The Pirate’s Wife

A title like The Pirate’s Wife makes promises to the reader: adventure, danger,  betrayal, romance, and especially pirate treasure. Daphne Geanacopoulos* more than keeps those promises in this deeply researched and richly imagined exploration of the life of Sarah Kidd,** the little known wife of one of history’s most infamous pirates.

Sarah’s marriage to Captain William Kidd stands at the heart of the book. Daphne tells the story of Kidd’s betrayal by his [non-pirate] business partner, capture, trial, and execution through the lens of Sarah’s experience of them. She discusses the world of pirates, the fine line between piracy and privateering, and the fact that being a pirate's wife is not the same thing as being a female pirate.

And yet their marriage was only a short part of Sarah’s life.

Daphne uses a wide range of records to piece together the life of a woman who, like many women of her time, could not read or write and consequently could not leave her own account of her experiences. She demonstrates how Sarah reinvents herself across multiple changes in fortune and through four very different marriages at a time when a woman’s place in society was determined by that of her husband.*** (Captain William Kidd was her third marriage and the only one that was a love match.) I was particularly fascinated by her period as a successful “she-merchant”: with her first husband’s support**** she opened a shop where she sold high-end imported goods.

The end result is not only the previously buried story of one woman’s life—in itself a form of hidden treasure--but a detailed and sometimes surprising picture of women’s lives in colonial America.

If you’re interested in pirates, women’s history, or colonial America, this one’s for you.

*Who I am going to refer to as Daphne hereafter, both because we are writing friends and also because otherwise I will undoubtedly misspell her last name at least once.

**Who I am going to refer to as Sarah hereafter, because historians have attached Kidd to her more famous husband for a long time.

***A woman did not have a legal identity separate from her husband. She was literally his property, though not in the same way that a slave was property. (More than once, Daphne pauses to look at the role of slaves in Sarah’s life during her marriage to Kidd—powerful reminders that slavery was already embedded into American culture at the end of the seventeenth century.)

****See *** above.  Without his support she could not have taken any of the legal or financial actions needs to open and run a business.




The Thrill of the Vote

This post first ran on election day in 2008.  My feelings on the subject haven't changed:

It's election day in Chicago.  I just walked home from voting for a new mayor and a new alderman--and I miss my old neighborhood.

For ten years I lived in South Shore:  a white graduate student/small business owner/writer in a neighborhood dominated by the African-American middle class.  My neighbors were police officers, schoolteachers, fire fighters, electricians, and social workers. We didn't have much in common most of the year--except on election day.

As far as I'm concerned, voting is thrilling.  My South Shore neighbors agreed.  Voting in South Shore felt like a small town Fourth of July picnic.  Like Mardi Gras.  Like Christmas Eve when you're five-years-old and still believe in Santa Claus.   No matter what time of day I went to vote, my polling place was packed.  Voters and election judges greeted each other--and me--with hugs, high fives, and "good to see you here, honey".  First time voters proudly announced themselves.  Elderly voters told stories about their first election.  People made sure they got their election receipts; some pinned them to their coats like a badge of honor. An older gentleman sat next to the door and said "Thank you for exercising your right to vote" as each voter left.  The correct response was "It's a privilege."

Except for occasional confusion when the machine that takes the ballots jams, my current polling place is low key. Election judges are friendly and polite, but hugs are not issued with your ballot.  When the young woman manning the machine handed me my receipt, she told me to have a good day.  I said "It's always a good day when you get to vote."  In South Shore, that would have gotten me an "Amen."  In politically active, politically correct Hyde Park, it got me an eye-blinking look of surprise and a hesitant smile.

I started home, thinking maybe I was the only one in the neighborhood whose pulse beat faster on election day.  A block from the polls I ran into a young man walking with a small boy, no more than six years old.  The little boy stopped me, with a grin so big that he looked like a smile wearing a woolly hat.

"Did you vote yet?" he asked.  "My dad is taking me to teach me how to vote."

"It's a privilege," I said.

He gave me the highest five he could manage.

*   *   *

That little boy is old enough to vote now.  I hope he went to the polls in today's mid-term elections with the same enthusiasm he showed then.  I know I did.   It is indeed a privilege.

So tell me, did you exercise your right to vote?