Ann M. Little’s telling of Esther Wheelwright’s story illuminates issues of class, status and gender through the 18th century and across continents.

In her intriguing new biography, “The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright,” Ann M. Little asks a rhetocial question: Why would the portrait of this Ursuline nun be there in the Massachusetts Historical Society collection “amid this collection of prominent Puritans and wealthy merchants, in the company of men she would have disagreed with on nearly every issue, great or small?”

“And yet, there she is,” writes Little, associate professor of history at Colorado State University, “the pink face floating in the glowing white wimple, wearing that determined look.”

The facts of Esther Wheelwright’s life are remarkable. She was taken as a little girl from Wells, Maine, by the Wabanaki in 1703, and eventually removed to New France, where she was brought up French and not only entered the Ursuline Academy but became a sister, refused to be repatriated to Maine (and the Protestant fold) and was thrice elected mother superior of her monastery in Quebec. As such, she dealt with the daily routine, leading officials, a small group of recalcitrant Anglophobe sisters, the British bombardment and, after the occupation, British officials.

Esther

Esther

Few women of her era had so much responsibility in a patriarchal, status-conscious world that overlapped three lively cultures.

Many of the book title’s “captivities” include cultural incarcerations, such as the Colonial-English strictures faced by a girl on the Maine frontier up to the age of 7. This entailed not only fear of the forest, French and Wabanaki, but social barriers (Wheelwright’s family ranked near the top of her community), and confining clothing for miniature adults, such as tiny stays added to as time went on. We are also given speculation as to what toys the child Esther might have owned. Dolls for encouragement of future motherhood were indeed likely. However, this reviewer, sensitized by the author’s earlier triage on ethnically correct terminology, felt his hackles rise when it was opined that the 7-year-old might have possessed a “Jew’s harp.” I had to stop short. Should I be offended by this dictionary-sanctioned name? The instrument found in nearly every culture and all over the New England colonies was called this at that time. As a reader, it made me question where political correctness and a urge to write a fair and honest story goes astray.

This is not to say that Little’s biography fails along such lines. It is the first modern academic treatment of Mother Esther and it has been built on practically every existing sliver of documentation available. Indeed, one has to admire the author’s research skills in New England, Quebec and Europe.

Unquestionably the most speculative captivity regards the Wabanaki, who scooped up young Wheelwright while attacking Wells on Aug. 10, 1703. In the past 10 or 20 years much scholarship has been devoted to Native American culture in what is now Maine and Canada by American, Canadian and, perhaps most tellingly, Wabanaki writers. In the process, images of Indian bloodlust as told by mid-19th-century historian Francis Parkman have fallen out of favor, as more credence is given to accounts such of that by historian James Sullivan, who wrote in 1795, “There has never been one instance of an unchaste attempt among (the Wabanaki) on a female captive.” Professor Little makes a compelling case for good treatment of Wheelwright and an embracing of the Catholic faith among the people who cared for her.

In 1708, her Wabanaki family migrated to Quebec for security, and she found a new home and another language in the Chateau Saint-Louis home of Governor Vaudreuil of New France. As Little notes, “Upon her arrival it was the women of Quebec who educated and cared for her, just as the Wabanaki and New England mothers and sisters had looked after her before them.”

The story of Wheelwright is unique in its details, but ends up telling a larger story about the lives of women in the region, as well as religion, warfare, status, human nature and rivalry on a local and world stage. This is a book that deserves a permanent place on any bookshelf dedicated to the history of Maine.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored or co-authored seven books, including “The History of Sweetser-Children’s Home” and “The AIDS Project: A History.” He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.