My latest library find was The Pirate Queen by Barbara Sjoholm. I found it in the paperback section, amongst the Shopaholics and The Latest Diet Craze Promoted by Celebrities That Involves Bizarre Food Combinations and No Exercise At All.
There is a certain kind of travel book that appeals to me. Not too pedantic, not too witty either, with enough facts and good imagery to give me a sense of place alongside a sense of the author. Sjoholm gave me all that, plus a fair bit of culture and history of the North Atlantic.
Sjoholm is Irish and Swedish by birth, and has been fascinated by the sea since childhood. In her twenties she even washed dishes on a steam ship up and down the Norwegian coast. She’s also a successful writer of mysteries and travel books, publisher, editor, and translator.
She undertook a long voyage, primarily by sea, from Ireland to Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, and Faroes, then to Iceland, and finally Norway, to seek out stories and records of women who “rowed and sailed, commanded and fished, built boats and owned fleets.”
While full of her own thoughts and feelings — at one point she steeled herself not to become too crabby like Paul Theroux — the book brings these seafaring women alive, even though some were fairly shadowy figures from a thousand years ago:
Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen herself, who commanded a fleet of ships along the western Irish coast, was known as such a scourge that Queen Elizabeth I put a bounty of 500 pounds on her head.
In the early 1800s, Christian Robertson owned a successful shipping company and recruited for the Hudson Bay Company in Stromness, Orkney, at a time when women just did not own their own businesses.
On the island of Yell in the Shetlands, Sjoholm meets a woman who worked on a passenger ship in the late 1960’s — one of only 15 women out of a crew of 500, as the “children’s hostess” who amused the 200 or so children emigrating from the UK to New Zealand with their parents.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, independent “herring lassies” worked long hours gutting and packing fish on the docks, some in the Shetlands and Orkneys and some following the herring migration from Scotland down the coast of England.
Aud the Deep-minded, a Norwegian noblewoman, sailed from Scotland to Iceland around AD 900 after her husband (the Norse-Irish king Olaf the White) died, bringing with her vast wealth and a large retinue to settle there and prosper.
Sjoholm interprets these women’s stories through the lens of modern feminism, pointing out how many of these women braved the ire of society to secure their financial and physical independence. She points out that all of the “fisherman’s wife” statues, supposedly erected in honor of women’s hard work and contributions to fishing culture, all depict women passively looking out to sea — either waving goodbye to or waiting for a glimpse of their fisherman husbands — rather than engaged in their true work.
Sjoholm also goes on a personal journey within the sea journey. She gives us peeks into her personality and life story throughout, but the main “subplot” is her search for a new last name. Her father was adopted, and Sjoholm doesn’t feel any connection to being a Wilson. The moments where she muses on what is important to her and how that can be reflected in her name are fascinating reading.