But Fortune cares nothing for your dreams. She takes up your life in her cup and shakes it so hard your teeth rattle in your head and your heart roars like a dragon in your chest. Then she throws the bones onto her table of lacquer and jade. Your fate is sealed. – Helaine Becker, Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao
Did I know much about Zheng Yi Sao before I read this? Only that she existed, reigned over the South China Sea with an iron hand, and defeated fleets hired from England (and, apparently, France & Portugal) when the Emperor was trying to capture/subdue her. Turns out, there’s so much more to know, and Helaine Becker does an excellent job of presenting it all.
The writing here is rich in metaphors “We girls scattered like chickens in the rain. We squawked like chickens, too. But there was no chance to escape,” and “In Canton, girls like us were like ink; used and used until we were all used up.” In fact, if I were still teaching, I’d be using the prose in this book to do a nice little lesson on metaphors, and their place in folktales. “I was ink, but I would also be the brush.” The language is strong and gorgeous, lyrical in an almost-poetic way. “In the end, I had written my own scroll, using brine and blood as my ink. I had never dreamed of the sea, but the sea, it seemed, had dreamed of me.”
The author also includes a concluding note that mentions how little is known of Zheng Yi Sao: including her actual name (the name here, which is what she is best known by, means “Wife of Zheng Yi”), even though she was ‘probably the most powerful pirate’ in all of known history, and how most of the story is an approximation & best guess of the Pirate Queen’s attitude and feelings, as reflected in her actions & the mores of the time.
Liz Wong’s illustrations are rich in color & character, and tell just as much of the story as the text, Look at this powerful queen.
“I was now thirty-two years old. A widow. And the queen of 70,000 men, with more than 1,800 ships at my command. Fortune had lifted me high and flung me headlong into the teeth of the wind.”
It’s a picture book for kids who are above entry level early-reader books in the course of their everyday reading. So if your child is struggling with most sight words, or not above a level 3 ‘Step into Reading’, this book should be for shared read alouds. That said, I think we should be reading aloud with/to our kids until they’re in high school (and longer, if they let us), so the idea of reading aloud with a 3rd or 4th grader isn’t an issue for me, at all. The topic is going to be interesting for kids, big and small, so the only hold out is who’s going to be doing the majority of the reading, really. For our family, that matters zero percent, so Pirate Queen is going to be getting read for a long while.
If you’re a true crime aficionado, or you listen to crime podcasts at all, I think the chances are pretty high that you’ve heard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist? It’s hard for me to judge, because I’m in Massachusetts, and it’s always been big news here, but it also seems like it’s just in the everywhere-ether lately, so I’m going to guess most people have heard of it. If not, brief recap: a couple of apparently genius masterminds (not really: the working theory is that these two are doofuses who lucked out but also know how to keep their mouths shut) posed as Boston cops, made the overnight ‘security’ guard (bc again: widely acknowledged to just be a whole nother doofus who liked overnights bc it meant he could basically sleep/be high/hungover through his whole shift, and therefore not that much actual security for MILLIONS of dollars of priceless art) let them in, tied up the two overnight guards, and stole the <most random> selection of art ever (13 pieces in total, of which Vermeer’s The Concert & Rembrandt’s Christ in The Storm on The Sea of Galilee are the most famous) and were in and out in under 81 minutes. That was in 1990, and the case continues to be unsolved in 2021, although theories abound & the reward is currently at $10 million. (I have thoughts, but that’s not the point of this review.)
But aside from that little piece of notoriety, I doubt many people outside of the museum world, or the Greater Boston area, know all that much about Isabella Stuart Gardner or her amazing museum, and that’s a damn shame. Enter Candace Fleming’s pretty detailed account of her life, times, & legacy.
Much like Zheng Yi Sao, history had the impetus & ability to forget all about Isabella Stuart Gardner, or as she was often known in her own lifetime “Mrs. Jack Gardner.” Born to wealth and privilege in NYC in 1840, then marrying into Boston wealth & privilege 20 years later, Isabella managed to carve out her own niche among even the upper crust of Boston society: the Boston Brahamins she married into didn’t know what they were in for, and Fleming takes every opportunity to point that out. She talks about Isabella parading zoo lions down main streets, basically shocking everybody and not “giving a good goddamn,” as my own Boston (but in no way Brahamin) Nana would have said.
And that was before she started ‘collecting’ art through all and any means, transporting it back to Boston & literally helping to build her own show palace, brick by brick. Isabella was … particular about her art & how it should be displayed, and the author discusses that in great detail as well.
Now, we say ‘collecting’ art in a general, euphemistic sort of way, the way that anybody talks about art that was ‘collected’ more than 100 years ago, but, as Fleming describes in the author’s notes: “To get around these laws, Isabella urged her art buyers to create fake bills of sale, or smuggle objects out in false-bottomed trucks. Isabella saw this as saving the art. Nowadays, we would call it cultural raiding. And we would call Isabella a thief.” Or, as Jack Sparrow would say:
During & after her forays into piracy abroad, Isabella basically built an Italian palazzo – complete with courtyard – in the swamps of a Boston neighborhood that was then pretty much undeveloped (there are some other landmarks there now that you might be familiar with: It’s called the Fenway), and everybody thought she was out of her mind. She lived on the fourth floor, and spent D E C A D E S filling, arranging, rearranging, and perfecting the placement of each piece of artwork, furniture, painting, porcelain, and every single knickknack. During her lifetime, she opened the doors to the paying public for just 20 days each year, and spent a good portion of that time, according to Fleming (and her annotated author’s note) following people around hollering at them not to touch things.
I’ve been to the Gardner, pre-Covid, and yeah: if there weren’t ropes up and spaces where you obviously can’t get at the exhibits, I can see how people would just sit at the desks, or leaf through her travel diaries, like the set pieces they are. Eventually, she had to hire security to make sure people weren’t pocketing priceless treasures or even just one of her many fountain pens, which is ironic in more than one way, Ms. Isabella: You just pocketed those priceless treasures, friend/Also… your security is gonna wind up being an issue somewhere else down the line.
Matthew Cordell, who has illustrated the Museum here in astonishing detail, captures the classic works, Isabella herself, and all the various plot points – including the 1990 robbery – with movement & energy. Particularly excellent, I think, are the pages where you can see just how those empty frames remain today: up on the walls, fabric wallpaper prominently displayed, as they await the return of the (twice) purloined masterpieces. Here’s a look at Isabella in her prime, in the museum’s gorgeous interior courtyard, and here’s a photo I took a couple years back of the space where (I’m pretty sure) The Concert should be:
I actually would’ve liked to hear a little bit more about Isabella’s early life, or her own world travels, but I imagine that’s because I already knew most of the basics that Fleming talks about, because I’ve been interested in her for a long time. I do know a factoid that is not mentioned in the book…that the Gardeners first started their world travels after the death of their infant son from pneumonia, after Isabella fell into what the Gardener Museum website calls ‘a depression’, but what I, many many years ago, heard a tour guide describe as ‘her suicidal despair’, which I cannot in any way fault her for. Said tour guide also had notions about calling the Museum Isabella’s ‘baby’, but my teacher was having none of that nonsense and quickly made her move on, so I suppose that’s all in ‘take it with a grain of salt’ territory. That said, I still thought a lot of Isabella’s character managed to come through in this story, so this book gets a big thumbs up from me too.
All in all, both books are fascinating looks at women who didn’t follow the roles & rules their society set out for them, and both of them are great adds to any ‘feminist in training’ bookshelves you may/should be building for the littles in your lives. It’s just a bonus that they’re also well-written tributes to women we should’ve learned about ourselves, growing up. I’m also just going to include one last piece of trivia here, because it is my favorite thing about the Gardener Museum: If your name is Isabella, you have a lifetime free pass to the museum. It’s a small, nonsense why-is-this-even-a-thing, thing, but I love it with all my heart.
I’m going to continue the chaos of my CBRBingo card and have these count as Free, since they came from, and will sadly return to, the library this week. I’m apparently taking the “who can hit the most random spots on the card” approach to Bingo this year.