REVIEW: A True Account by Katherine Howe
In Boston, as the Golden Age of Piracy comes to a bloody close, Hannah Masury – bound out to service at a waterfront inn since childhood – is ready to take her life into her own hands. When a man is hanged for piracy in the town square and whispers of a treasure in the Caribbean spread, Hannah is forced to flee for her life, disguising herself as a cabin boy in the pitiless crew of the notorious pirate Edward “Ned” Low. To earn the freedom to choose a path for herself, Hannah must hunt down the treasure and change the tides.
Meanwhile, professor Marian Beresford pieces Hannah’s story together in 1930, seeing her own lack of freedom reflected back at her as she watches Hannah’s transformation. At the center of Hannah Masury’s account, however, lies a centuries-old mystery that Marian is determined to solve, just as Hannah may have been determined to take it to her grave.
A True Account tells the unforgettable story of two women in different worlds, both shattering the rules of their own society and daring to risk everything to go out on their own account.
CW – extreme violence, threat of outing a lesbian in 1930
Dear Ms. Howe,
This book looked too good to pass up: Eighteenth century pirates and a “treasure hunt” of sorts with two women trying to escape the constrictions of their day. I liked one part of the dual timeline better but both kept me intrigued, reading, and wanting to know what would happen.
In 1720s Boston, young Hannah Masury has been bound out for service to the owner of a harbor tavern since almost before she can remember. Hannah is lackluster about her job, as are many of her friends, so when the opportunity to escape another day of drudgery as well as watch the public hanging of three pirates occurs, they grab the chance. Very quickly Hannah’s life is turned upside down. Before she knows it, she’s hiding as a cabin boy aboard what she thinks is a ship headed to buy tropical fruit but she soon discovers she’s in an even more dangerous situation than that which she was fleeing from.
Two hundred years (roughly) later, Professor Marian Beresford is approached by an earnest undergrad who shows Marian what appears to be a true account of the life of one Hannah Masury. Marian is skeptical at first but the age-foxed and water rippled pages, the eighteenth century spelling plus just enough, but not too many to be perfect, facts leads her to talk with her father, the famous explorer, about trying to find the hidden treasure Hannah refers to. Could it all be real? Or is it too good to be true?
Let me reiterate the warning of violence. The pirates with whom Hannah sails are not Errol Flynn Hollywood nice guys. They play for real and actually appear to relish inflicting torture when it’s called for. The threat to “out” Marian in 1930 is subtle but real.
I found the eighteenth century sections to be the most interesting and riveting. Hannah seems to jump off the page, grab you by the hand, and pull you into her life. It’s not a pretty one. Usually, for me, chick-in-pants stories start to fall apart at some point but as they attempt to reason out how Hannah might have escaped the notice of her male shipmates, Marian and Kay come up with some good ideas as to the way Hannah might have slipped “under the radar.” Yet there were moments when others acted as if they were aware that something was off which were followed by Hannah having to think quickly to allay suspicions. After a while, this seemed to stretch a bit thin but by that point, other things were kicking off.
In 1930 Cambridge, Marian Beresford is a slightly jaded college professor at Radcliffe. She’s never been quite enough – either as a society girl for her mother or an academician for her father. Her desperation to finally be a success in her father’s eyes leads her to argue for the authenticity of something in the teeth of her father’s nitpicking. And yet, there is enough there, with sufficient facts whose hazy provenance might be explained away that this really could be her chance to shine. Unlike Hannah who is “In our faces” from the start, Marian’s character and emotions are slowly built up across the book.
I wavered back and forth as to whether or not I believed Hannah’s story but only during the 1930s sections when Marian was trying to prove it. While reading about Hannah jumping from the frying pan into the fire and then tap dancing around the flames that could consume her if she wasn’t careful, I totally believed in her – even if her story required a little hand-waving to maintain suspension of belief. There are a few twists at the end one of which is increasingly signaled while the other was sweet and slightly unexpected. All in all, I couldn’t blame any of the women for what they did as they struggled to make a place for themselves in what were very much men’s worlds. B