When my editor placed The Sea Captain's Wife in my hands and told me that it was based on the letters of a New Englander in the 1800s – a white woman who married a free black man and followed him home to the British West Indies – I felt as if I were about to open a box of treasure.
Letters offer both the mundane and the mystery of life. As a women's studies major in college, I had donned a pair of white archivist gloves to pore over correspondence between a 19th-century student and her mother. Later I had studied in Kingston, Jamaica, so I was curious to read how this interracial couple had been received in the Caribbean.
Long before she found happiness under the coconut trees of Grand Cayman Island, Eunice Richardson Stone Connolly experienced the vicissitudes of working-class life in chilly New England. Her family, like many, was dispersed by the forces of industrialization and the Civil War. They struggled to stay connected by putting ink to paper – paper that didn't always arrive at its intended destination.
"Eunice was an ordinary woman who led an extraordinary life by making momentous decisions within a world that offered her few choices," writes Martha Hodes, a historian at New York University. By crossing racial lines, Eunice married up, so to speak. That turns modern-day assumptions about history upside down. By focusing her scholarship on transnational and transracial stories, Hodes shows how the meaning of race is shaped by time and place, class and gender.
Ultimately, "The Sea Captain's Wife" is also the story of Hodes's own journey to rescue Eunice from the waves of history. Eunice's letters are part of a family collection named after her mother – the Lois Wright Richardson Davis Papers at Duke University in Durham, N.C. They were passed from Eunice's brother to his great-granddaughter, who sold the papers to a collector but never knew where they came to rest. Decades later, Hodes was able to find her and tell her about Eunice – an ancestor who had been left out of family stories because of her taboo relationship.
Always searching for a stable home life, Eunice worked in the textile mills in Manchester, N.H., to support her children while her first husband, a white carpenter, headed South to look for work. She had to find lodging for her son while she lived in a workers' tenement that didn't allow children.
By the start of the Civil War in 1861, Eunice had traveled to Mobile, Ala., to reunite the family. But the togetherness was short-lived. Her husband, along with her brother-in-law, joined the Confederate Army, while two of her brothers signed up on the Union side. She felt out of place as a Northern sympathizer in the South. "To be plain I do not like the folks here as well as at home, they are so different," she wrote to her mother. "Times are pretty hard here.... What a dreadful thing war is. I have been homesick ever since it came up."
Expecting another child and barely getting by, Eunice headed back North to be close to her family. That was Eunice's "first unconventional decision," Hodes writes. But as she eked out a living as a washerwoman and servant, she again had to live apart from her children, and became deeply depressed. In the eyes of New England society, only her whiteness set her apart from slaves and little separated her from lowly Irish immigrants.
She imagined that her brothers might find her husband on the battlefield and bring him back North. "I do hope William will fall into their hands yet," she wrote.
It was a letter from her sister that brought news of her husband's death at the end of the war. That prompted Eunice to write to her brother Henry: "My star of hope has set, gone down in darkness and despair and left a dark empty void."
Four years later, Eunice made her second unconventional choice: She married William Smiley Connolly, a sea captain of African descent. By boarding a ship to Grand Cayman with her new husband, Eunice was finally on her way to the home life and economic stability she had yearned for. But "by marrying him, Eunice would once and for all forfeit the respectability to which she had aspired so long, as a white woman in her native New England."
The story of how their union came about is lost. Hodes speculates that brother Henry may not have preserved family letters from that time when he later became a prominent business leader and had concerns about his public image.
Eunice's mother and sisters embraced the relationship, however. Eunice wrote to them after arriving in the Caribbean that her husband finally felt "at liberty to act all the love he feels for me without fear of disturbing any one."
The reader never comes to know Eunice as well as if she were a character in a novel, but the history is offered in the spirit of a narrative, rather than a textbook. At times, the insertion of Eunice's words from letters into the text is cumbersome, and Hodes drives home certain themes to the point of repetition. But she pieces together a fascinating story, including her own she traveled for several years digging up Eunice's history and befriending her family's descendants as she went.
The beginning of the book reveals that Eunice's happily-ever-after didn't last too many years before a hurricane took her life along with much of her second family. But I prefer to remember Eunice through her most contented letter, written after she settled on Cayman and her first daughter with Smiley was about a year old: "I have a Happy home and an indulgent loving Husband," she reports. "My little Louie is sleeping in her Hammock.... I have a plenty to eat drink & wear and do not have to sit up nights sewing by Lamp light...."
• Stacy A. Teicher is a Monitor staff writer.