Esther Brandeau, the protagonist of Susan Glickman’s novel, The Tale-Teller, is part Scheherezade, part Shakespearian cross-dresser, and as a stowaway on a ship, bears some resemblance to a Robert Louis Stevenson character.
There really was an historical character named Esther Brandeau, a young Jewess, who, in 1738, appeared in Quebec City disguised as a boy. According to a report from Jean-Victor Varin de La Marre, Commissary of the French Marine, Esther’s father and mother sent her five years earlier by boat from Bayonne, France, to relatives in Amsterdam. Through various adventures, Esther skipped from place to place and ended up sailing to the New World.
We meet Glickman’s version of Esther as Jacques Lafargue, a teenage boy who presents himself to his fellow shipmates as an orphan from a good family. When her disguise is discovered in Quebec, Esther transforms herself into an entertainer, weaving fantastic stories.
These include a story about a girl born from the sea, like Botticelli’s Venus; a trip on a Spanish boat called the Santa Maria; a meeting with pirates; sailing around Madagascar; swimming with dolphins; and on and on.
Not only is Glickman’s Esther a weaver of fabulous tales, she is a staunch feminist, remarkable for a Jewess in the early 18th century or any woman of that time. “I was forced to disguise myself, because superstition forbade the presence of women on board ship. Convinced as I was then — as I still am today — that women are capable of performing every nautical job, this exasperated me, but I continued to dress as a boy.”
Forget that most women in the early 1700s were educated in a limited way, if at all.
Forget that for century upon century, Jews were exiled from their homes, wandering from one land to another, experiencing mass murder in England during the period of the Third Crusade of 1190, long before they were pushed out of Spain by Queen Isabella.
Bravo to Glickman for imagining a seafaring Esther modern readers can relate to. Young, modern readers. Adolescent readers, not adults. Grown-ups find it harder to put aside their knowledge of history, the realization, for instance, that Daniel Defoe was an unlikely read for women in the 18th century. Most were illiterate. The stories Esther weaves are thus less enchanting for adults, even though we can appreciate her gift for fiction.
Sadly this child is too old to have had much patience for any of Esther’s tales, but I will put The Tale-Teller aside for the day I become a grandmother.