Remarkably true, yes, but one-sided look at historical wrong

By  Maura Hanrahan, Catholic Register Special
  • March 16, 2011
Esther: The Remarkable True Story of Esther Wheelwright, Puritan Child, Native Daughter, Mother Superior by Julie Wheelwright (HarperCollins, 342 pages, hardcover, $32.99).Esther: The Remarkable True Story of Esther Wheelwright, Puritan Child, Native Daughter, Mother Superior by Julie Wheelwright (HarperCollins, 342 pages, hardcover, $32.99).

Julie Wheelwright has an extraordinary tale to tell about her ancestor Esther. But she falls a little short of telling the whole story, and that’s a shame.

Esther Wheelwright lived in colonial New England at a time when violent conflict between settlers and native people was rife. Imagine living under the constant threat of kidnap. Imagine you are six or seven and this is all you have known. This was the way for 18th-century native children in what is now Eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. 

Armed settlers took men, women, children, even babies — and this is in addition to taking the land native people needed to survive on. This was long before residential schooling was instituted. In the early colonial era, some were killed, others kept as slaves. We know little else about them.

In contrast, there are quite a few accounts of kidnapped settlers, including settler children. As awful and traumatic as kidnapping was, these victims were at least spared from slavery. Stolen settler children were “crying blood” — taken to replace native children who had been taken.

While pining for their parents, they were adopted and integrated into grieving families. They had to learn a new language and adjust to a completely alien way of being in which the communal rather than the individual was emphasized, in which acquisition and property were not important. They were in a world of French and indigenous Roman Catholicism, a shocking contrast to the strict Protestantism they had hitherto been part of. Their circumstances demanded adaptation and many converted. They undoubtedly experienced great trauma in all this and would in most cases suffer from confused identities, remaining psychologically torn between two peoples and two families for the rest of their lives.

Kidnapped settlers frequently found their way back home after negotiations for their release or upon coming of age. Stockholm syndrome-like, some refused to go home. Girls grew up to marry Mohawk men or they settled, apparently happily, into French colonial society in Quebec as educated, cloistered nuns or wives of the elite. 

Quite a number of these former captives wrote books. Cotton Mather noted their plight in his famous Memorial of the Present Deplorable State of New England published in 1707. By then, 11-year-old Esther Wheelwright had been a captive for four years. With her captors and 21 fellow captives from her community of Wells, Esther was made to walk 300 km north through Maine. She probably reckoned she would never see her parents, brothers or sisters again. Eventually the group arrived in Norridgewock, a village overseen by a Jesuit priest.

Esther would spend the next few years as an adopted daughter of a bereaved Abenaki family. Then she would go with them north to Quebec where Jesuit priests noted her keen intelligence and remarkable potential. They wanted her for the Ursulines, a French order.

The process of how and why it happened is murky, but we know that she joined the Ursulines and eventually became Mother Superior during a tumultuous time in Quebec and Canadian history. Becoming a nun, the girl changed her name a second time. She was now Sr. Esther Marie-Joseph Wheelwright de l’Enfant Jesus.  

The author is a direct descendant of Esther’s brother, John. There is, alas, a great deal of repetition in the story about the Wheelwright’s wealth, status and position in New England. We are reminded of these things sometimes on every second page, and we get the point. I am not convinced of the author’s claims that Esther’s status as a high-ranking “daughter of Albion” was responsible for her skilled negotiations with the conquering British. I suspect that Mother Marie-Joseph, who was by then decades away from her short-lived Puritan childhood, was following appeasement strategies employed by nuns since Hildegard of Bingen, if not before.

I sympathize with Julie Wheelwright. It is extremely challenging to get a true fix on someone who left little behind in the way of personal written records. So much is left to inference. In such cases, the times and the context in which the subject lived might be well drawn, as they are here, but the subject herself remains elusive. Chapters with titles like “The Search for Esther’s Child” promise more than they deliver.

I felt most in touch with Esther when, as an older woman, she received a miniature portrait of her mother, Mary Snell Wheelwright. Mary never gave up hope that her daughter would return. Ordinarily a nun would not be allowed to keep such a personal item. But such was Esther’s desire for some link to her lost mother that the rules were bent.

The author’s compassion for Esther is abiding, obvious and, of course, natural. There are hints of it, but I would have liked to have seen more of such feeling for the Abenakis, especially the kidnapped boy taken in revenge for Esther and made a slave, ordered to sleep in the Wheelwrights’ barn. This child, like all the others, is relegated to a minor footnote. 

I know it is hard to do better than this, but some research is possible.

(Maura Hanrahan is a novelist in Newfoundland.)

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