The Unbinding of Mary Reade, by Miriam McNamara, (June 2018, Sky Pony Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781510727052
Recommended for readers 14+
Raised as a boy to take the place of her dead brother, Mary Reade spent her formative years as Mark, mainly to get her drunken mother money from her wealthy grandmother, who would never name a female heir. Eventually, Mary took to the high seas, where her life depended on passing as male. She joined pirate Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny after they raided a merchant ship she sailed with, finding herself fascinated with the fiery redheaded Bonny, who wore dresses and wielded weapons with pride and bravado.
This could have been so much more. I found the nonbinary, bisexual Mary Reade storyline brilliant, capturing the sheer terror of living in a male-dominated, homophobic society. Mary is constantly afraid for her life because of who she is, and the men around her shove their hands down her trousers and pull up her shirt, seemingly at will, to confirm rumors. She’s powerless to say or do anything, because in this society, different equals death, and it’s always over her head. She finds relief in living as a male, yet feels uncomfortable being gendered at all – despite the fact that the novel always refers to Reade as “she”. Anne is a study in frustration, appearing as a tragic, yet scheming, woman who attaches herself to any male – or male figure – that will help her navigate 18th Century society. Is she bisexual, or is she just using her sex to gain favor? There’s a lot of slow burn relationship work here between Mary and her childhood love, Nat, and some tumultuous relationship beginnings with Anne Bonny that never quite gain footing. I wish the book concentrated more on the two pirates’ adventures together, and that Anne emerged as a stronger female character. Mary’s gender confusion and self-doubt may resonate with nonbinary and trans readers, and engender empathy in all readers. It’s an add to consider for historical fiction and LGBTQ collections.