Rule breaker: A review of Woman, Captain, Rebel: The Extraordinary True Story of a Daring Icelandic Sea Captain

Woman, Captain, Rebel: The Extraordinary True Story of a Daring Icelandic Sea Captain by Margaret Willson

I had never heard of Thurídur Einarsdóttir before until I read Margaret Willson’s impressive biography, Woman, Captain, Rebel: The Extraordinary True Story of a Daring Icelandic Sea Captain, courtesy of NetGalley. Mrs. Willson has brought to light the story of a strong woman unknown to the world, who braved the soaring waves and freezing Atlantic waters to fish. She has conducted phenomenal and meticulous research, but she is also passionate about her subject. She enlisted a village of professionals, research assistants, and friends to comb through historical documents, photographs, and publications for details on Captain Thurídur’s life and the Icelandic fishing community during Thurídur’s times.


The book opens with an explanation of why Mrs. Willson wrote this book. She was on a trip to Iceland with her friend when she discovered Captain Thurídur’s reconstructed fishing hut. She was shocked to find out that Thurídur was a woman fishing captain, and she wondered how she became one at a time when society rejected female leadership. Ever since, she was haunted with questions, and a quest to find answers led to the writing of this story.


The book has 32 chapters written in chronological order spanning from 1770 to 1863. The story opens with the eruption of mountain Hell in 1783 that brought destruction, hunger, and death to the Icelanders, and with Móri, a male ghost that haunted Thurídur’s descendants for nine generations. Five years after the eruption, when Thurídur was 11 years old, her father took her on her first fishing trip. Ever since, she was hooked.


When her father died, Thurídur and her brother had no choice but to join forces and fish to survive. Thurídur was proven to be clear-sighted, feisty, confident, and observant in reading the weather. People liked her and trusted her advice. They watched her grow into a young woman “peculiar and different” (p. 31), who wore pants at sea and for farm work. It was obvious to all that she had paved her own path and didn’t care what others thought about it. Over the years, she worked as a crewmember for other fishing captains before she became a captain herself for the first time on Pastor Jakob’s eight-oared boat. She also managed to lease Gata, a small run-down farm, which she transformed into a well-maintained and productive farm.


In her personal life, Thurídur didn’t have much luck with men. Her first “husband” turned out to be an alcoholic. Her second “husband” believed false rumors that she had gotten pregnant with his half-brother’s child. Her third husband, blackmailed her into marrying him (she later divorced him.) Thurídur had a daughter with her second “husband’ who became ill and died at the age of five. Her grief made her foster, and later adopt, her sister’s “invalid imbecile” child (p.86), a three-year-old girl, dirty and covered with rashes and lice. Thurídur took good care of the child who grew up to be a chattering and intelligent girl. She also cared for her elderly mother who was ignored and neglected by her siblings.


Through her leadership skills and intelligence, Thurídur earned many friends who supported her when she needed them, such as Pastor Jacob who made her captain to his boat. But these same qualities also made her many enemies, such as the stingy Captain Jón Rich. He had betrayed her when he didn’t lend her money to buy a cow as he had promised her. Another enemy was CC Thórdur who took all the credit after Thurídur had helped him solve a robbery case.


When she was 63 years old, she gave up being a fishing captain and moved to Hafnarfjördur. A friend made her a shopkeeper and a lodger. Later, she became a traveler and a travel guide on dangerous missions. She petitioned the Danish government three times for a pension, but the government ignored her. She died on November 13, 1863. After her death, technological advancements in Iceland drove women out of the fisheries.


This motivational biography of Captain Thurídur touches on many universal themes: marriage and family life, treatment of the elderly, gender roles, societal laws and superstitions, to name a few. It was interesting to learn how these themes applied to Thurídur’s life. For example:

a) Only landowners and farm-leaseholders could wed. That’s why, many men married older women, usually widows who had inherited a leasehold farm from their dead husbands. Such marriages helped both parties: the woman would have a free farmhand, and the man would be the new leaseholder. When a man wedded, by law, his wife became his possession, and no one could interfere, no matter how badly he treated her. Some couples would live together without being married. Although the Icelandic authorities frowned upon such arrangements, they tolerated it as long as the couple had a leasehold farm to sustain themselves. Thurídur was smart enough to live with her first two men without being married to them.


b) Single women were usually unable to support their family alone. Accordingly, the authorities separated such families in order to avoid having to support them. The mothers would work as contracted farmhands and the children would be auctioned off to a farmer, unless someone could foster them. These children officially became paupers with no protection or personal rights. Often, they were humiliated, abused, and beaten until they either became disabled or died. That’s why, after their father died, Thurídur and her brother took up fishing to support their mother and sister.


c) Older people who depended on their adult children were often maltreated. Caring for older parents meant providing food and servants to look after them, when you could barely feed your own family. Elderly people who had no offspring or family ties most likely ended up becoming paupers. Thurídur was the only one of her siblings who took care of their aged mother. Thurídur was blessed with good health and the strength to c continue working in her old age until the day she died.


d) Thurídur asserted her independence by using the court system to fight for her rights. She sued her wrongdoers such as Ólafur Jónsson who had insulted and threatened her through his speech and writings. She also sued on behalf of others, particularly abused women.

Besides learning about Icelandic society in Thurídur’s times, I also liked how Mrs. Willson weaved historical events into the narrative. Some examples are:


a) The 1783 Hell eruption. It started off with a blue haze that covered the earth in late May of that year. During early June, the locals felt earthquakes rattle the ground and witnessed flames shoot thousands of feet into the air. This lasted eight months bringing widespread famine because the volcanic ash from the eruption had poisoned the land and the sea. Crops, animals, fish, and people died in the thousands. The sad thing was that Denmark’s King did not offer any aid at all to the Icelanders.


b) The Great Flood of January 9, 1799. That night, when everyone was asleep, a storm ripped through the land, flooding farmhouses and storage buildings. Local residents battled the storm to save what they could. But between the strong winds and the floods that washed out their belongings, they did not stand a chance. The flood caused miles of devastation, death to many farm animals, and destruction of many boats.


c) The measles epidemic of 1846. In May of that year, “a European sailing ship arrived at Hafnarfjördur carrying some Danes infected with measles” (p. 237). Icelanders had no vaccination against measles, and so the virus spread quickly everywhere. By the time this epidemic died down in December, it had killed 2 percent of Iceland’s entire population.


Mrs. Willson’s fishing background was invaluable to this book. She spent much of her youth in a small fishing community on the Oregon Coast, where she worked as a deckhand on a salmon boat. Later, she fished for rock lobsters and dived for abalone. Armed with hands-on fishing experience and painstaking research, she crafted the captivating account of Captain Thurídur’s life.


Thurídur Einarsdóttir was a highly respected seawoman captain who was renowned not only for her fishing and weather-reading abilities, but also for her observational skills. She had a stellar reputation for being independent, clever, strong-willed, compassionate, and clear-sighted. Her leadership skills were an example of bravery and courage that I admire. Historians, fishing fans, and women readers will find her story inspirational. This book will make an excellent movie adaptation too.

  • Copyright © Harikleia Georgiou Sirmans 2011-2023. All rights reserved.
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