A rollicking, captivating account of Catalina d’Erauso, a real-life 17th-century Spanish woman who went to the New World and lived as a man.
Based on Catalina’s own autobiography of her life as the “Lieutenant Nun,” and other historical documents, German debut novelist Orths creates a thoroughly modern narrative filled with tangential tall tales and odd bits of history as Catalina renegotiates the territories of custom and gender. As this version goes, Catalina was born in 1592 in San Sebastian, Spain, on an auspicious day of sun and rain. Her older brother Miguel helped with her birth and from then on was the headstrong Catalina’s primary caretaker. It is when Miguel leaves to run the family’s silver mine in Bolivia that young Catalina hatches her plan—she will risk everything to join Miguel in New Spain. She joins a convent (the only way a young girl can get a good education) and proceeds to become a model student, where the discipline and self-degradation she practices will steel her for the arduous journey. As a young woman, she runs away from the nunnery, taking shelter in a cave in the hills and transforming herself into Francisco Loyola. She moves to the city, where she becomes a physician’s assistant to Juan de Arteaga, and, more importantly, practices the ways of men. She scratches and curses and makes sly eyes at the ladies who pass, takes fencing lessons, roughens her hands and builds muscle so that no one will question her. On a mysterious ship of mute sailors, Francisco and Juan sail to the Americas together, where Catalina secretly searches for her brother. In South America, Catalina/Francisco becomes a soldier, renowned on the field for blood lust, then becomes a gambler, a murderous brawler, is cruel to women and—in short—engenders every undesirable trait of a stereotypical male. Orths refrains from simplifying this portrait of a gender-bending heroine, questioning instead the permeability of identity.
A fascinating subject and fine storytelling merge in this novel of a Spanish gender-bender.