REVIEW: The Pirate Queen by Barbara Sjoholm

REVIEW: The Pirate Queen by Barbara SjoholmThe Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O'Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea by Barbara Sjoholm
Published: Seal Press (2004), Hardcover, 288pg
Source: Library
Genres: History, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Travel

The Pirate Queen begins in Ireland with the notorious Grace O’Malley, a scourge to the most powerful fleets of sixteenth-century Europe. This Irish clan chieftain and pirate queen was a contemporary of Elizabeth I, and a figure whose life is the stuff of myth. Regularly raiding English ships caught off Ireland’s west coast, O’Malley purportedly fought off fierce Algerian pirates just hours after giving birth to her son. She commanded two hundred men (and a couple of husbands), and acquired lands and castles that still dot the Irish coastline today. But O’Malley was not alone, especially in the waters of the North Atlantic where author Barbara Sjoholm traveled through coastal communities and seafaring ports to collect these little-known stories. Since ancient times, women have rowed and sailed, commanded and fished, built boats and owned fleets. Yet their incredible contributions have been nearly erased from the history books, as have the myths of seal women, Finn wives, and storm witches. In The Pirate Queen, Sjoholm brings some of these extraordinary stories back to life, taking the reader on an unforgettable journey in this meticulously researched, colorfully written, and truly original work. Illustrations and maps add to these intriguing swashbuckling tales. (from Amazon)

I got this from the library after reading one of Ms Sjoholm’s short stories in Go Your Own Way: Women Travel the World Solo . Though I enjoyed it (The Pirate Queen), it’s already been surpassed by another of her books (Incognito Street), so writing this review will be difficult because I’ll have to disassociate the second book from this book, and that’s hard to me to do. Because the second book is so. good. This one is good. But it’s not as good. You know?

The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea is about Ms Sjoholm’s researching of ancient tales about seafaring women. She physically went searching for them, actually going to the places where seafaring women lived and worked, and that right there is something that blows my mind. Because how often do people actually do physical research, off of their computers, today? Even if you need an article from a library in another country, you can just ask to have it scanned and emailed to you. You can join newsgroups to find descendants of whatever. Heck, you could even ask on Twitter “does anyone know anything about seafaring women from ancient times?” and probably get a ton of responses. I suppose researching is harder with more obscure topics, like the one Ms Sjoholm was researching, but still. It’s pretty mind-boggling to me how far we’ve come since Ms Sjoholm wrote this book. How much easier it is to find out what we want to know– but maybe less fun. I know that I’d rather go on a sea voyage down the side of Norway than sit around on my computer for hours at a time.

Anyway, she goes on this long trip searching for women of the sea. She starts with the most well-known, Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen from Ireland. I knew a little bit about her from reading The Gift of the Pirate Queen, but I knew nothing of what Ms Sjoholm turned up: that she was a warrior, a pirate, a wily old woman who knew what she wanted and got it. She supposedly gave birth to a son and then immediately afterward fought off invading Algerian corsairs — she was awesome, and I’d love to read a book that goes more in depth about her life.

Even more interesting than Grace O’Malley, though, were the fisherwomen of Iceland and Norway. There’s this whole sequence in the book where Ms Sjoholm is trying to dig up info about the women who went out fishing and all she runs into is stodgy old men who insist that there was never any female fishers. “What about Skipper Thuridur,” Ms Sjoholm said (I’m paraphrasing, here). “Oh, her. Well, maybe she fished, but no other women did,” the Stodgy Old Dudes said (again, I’m paraphrasing). Ms Sjoholm knew there were fisherwomen, though, from talking with the FEMALE descendants, and it all makes for an entertaining, if slightly frustrating, story.

The Pirate Queen isn’t just about women of the sea, however. It’s also about Barbara Sjoholm herself. She wasn’t just searching for women who defied the norm, she was searching for her true name as well. And, I suppose, she was looking for validation on wanting to travel and explore– but you’ll have to read the book yourself to get more info on that.

I really enjoyed The Pirate Queen. Sometimes the switching from the retelling of a historical woman’s life to Ms Sjoholm’s life was a little rough, and the beginning was a little bit boring. By the end of the book, however, all I wanted to do was read more about Ms Sjoholm’s travels, about the women she dug up from obscurity, and about sea journeys in general. If you’re interested in travel books, in history, in women who did what they wanted and didn’t apologize for it, then I think you’d like reading this book. It’s a lot of fun, and look! I guess I didn’t have such a hard time writing about it, after all.

Read: June 2010

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