By Wendy Thomas
March is Women’s History Month at Denver Public Library, and to celebrate we are checking out “Woman, Captain, Rebel: The Extraordinary True Story of a Daring Icelandic Sea Captain” by Margaret Willson.
This narrative nonfiction book follows the life and adventures of Captain Thurídur, a woman remarkable not only for her seafaring skills but her sense of justice and advocacy for those in marginalized circumstances.
In 1783, Thurídur was 7 years old when volcanic activity dried up the rivers and spewed ash over the whole of Iceland, condemning the people to poverty and starvation. Her father refused to help a starving teenage boy who died shortly after leaving their doorstep, weaving through their lives the belief that the boy’s ghost was a curse that would follow them for nine generations. Growing up in a fishing village, Thurídur wanted nothing more than to take to the sea with her father.
At 11, she joined him on his crew, and by the time she was a teenager she was well known for her navigational skills and abundant catches. The rowboats of the time offered little protection from storms, and she also became known for predicting the weather and was a prized crewmate and captain because she navigated dangerous storms without ever once losing a member of her crew. On the sea, she was lucky.
On land, the curse of the ghost followed her. Unlucky in personal and familial relationships, she often found herself up against powerful men who took advantage of her sharp mind, deft skills and inferior status as a woman. Seafaring women were not uncommon at the time, but Thurídur distinguished herself by wearing trousers not only at sea but all the time, along with a tailcoat and short top hat. Her unconventional ways did not go unnoticed, and her individuality often made her the target of idle gossip and ill will.
Further distinguishing her was her commitment to justice and belief in the rights of all, especially those in the direst of situations. She learned to use the legal system to enforce those rights and was known to take care of those who could not take care of themselves. Thurídur’s acute skills of observation and analysis also led her to solve a crime that the authorities were too lazy and inept to solve themselves.
Rather than appreciating her service, the locals took to ostracizing her for exposing the truth, which ultimately drove her from town in fear of her life. At a time when women had little agency, Captain Thurídur determined her own course and fought for her beliefs. Exhaustively researched and rich with period detail, the book is a wealth of information as well as a fascinating story.
With a cast of characters whose lives are intertwined in multiple ways, the List of Key Characters at the beginning is indispensable and extensive backmatter establishes the quality of the research. Captain Thurídur was a remarkable woman whose story was not widely known before now and may have never been told outside of Iceland had the author not fortuitously stumbled upon her story. A great winter read, check out “Woman, Captain, Rebel” at a Denver Public Library near you.
Wendy Thomas is a librarian at the Smiley Branch Library. When not reading or recommending books, you can find her hiking with her dogs.