The Pirate's Wife: The Remarkable True Story of Sarah Kidd
“a solid primer on piracy and privateering”
Daphne Palmer Geanacopoulos has clearly done her homework in The Pirate’s Wife. She draws on archival material from the 18th century, including legal documents and property records to trace the career of the notorious Captain Kidd and his wife, Sarah. She does a good job of providing the historical context for piracy and privateering and the difference between the two. Privateers were basically mercenaries, hired to “legally plunder and seize enemy French ships.” They would share the loot with the legal authorities who licensed such seizure, while keeping a cut for themselves.
Captain Kidd started as a privateer. He was engaged by “Christopher Codrington, governor of the Leeward Islands, an English colony in the West Indies, to help ward off the French. Kidd saw action on the tiny French island of Marie Galante (near Guadeloupe) and was sent to help at the island of St. Martin but his men preferred piracy to legal plundering. . . .”
And so starts Kidd’s troubles. He loses one ship and crew to the world of piracy, returns to New York, marries the twice-widowed Sarah, who is still in her twenties, then gets another privateer commission. Only to turn pirate himself. The reasons for turning to piracy are also clearly explained by Geanacopoulos:
“Some did so out of revenge against merchant and naval ship captains who wielded a violent and arbitrary authority against them. Pirates detested the strict social order meted out by the maritime martinets who made their lives so difficult. . . .”
Or simple greed could be the motivator. Why loot treasure that had to be shared with someone who took none of the risk? Kidd’s actual piracy isn’t the focus anyway, but his trial for piracy, the way he’s used by “solid citizens” for profit. Sarah’s experience on the pirate ship is definitely unusual, but she’s there to flee with her husband, not to follow the pirate life. Those expecting tales of yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum will be disappointed.
Still, this book serves as a solid primer on piracy and privateering. Where it stumbles is in trying to tell the story of Sarah Kidd. Her narrative gets lost in all the essential historical context. No strong sense of her character is ever developed, nor is any driving narrative arc of her desires and goals.
Sarah Kidd doesn’t come to life as a character because her scenes are presented as what might have happened or could have been seen or might have been felt. This creates distance. Worse, it makes the reader distrust the writer. Hedging one’s bets doesn’t encourage the reader to buy in to the fiction. Instead it makes one distrust it altogether. A typical passage reads:
“Sarah may have felt anxious about the gravity of the situation, but she would have been stoic and strong for the sake of her children whose fear no doubt showed through the tears in their innocent eyes.”
Would she have been stoic and strong? The teary children invented by the writer aren’t a convincing motive. Rather they read as a cliché. This kind of writing surrounds Sarah at every turn, nudging the reader to see Sarah in a way that the archival material doesn’t prove or suggest, but feels completely like an invention. Which would be fine in a historical novel that actually created scenes and put us there with the characters.
This awkward hybrid of history and hypotheticals succeeds in fulfilling neither goal. It would have been better to write a straightforward history. Geneacopoulos certainly knows the material well enough, but she lacks the novelist’s eye and skill for building a dramatic story, even with all the innately dramatic elements she has at her disposal in Sarah Kidd’s truly extraordinary life. The book does tell a remarkable true story but not in a remarkable way.