The Missy Box

The Missy Box

Writers of historical fiction often start with a snippet of information about their own ancestors. Fascinated by the time and place in which these people lived, the writer then delves into family history and the available public information to create a story with fictional characters—because, after all, one’s own family is usually not that interesting.

The Missy Box
By Anne Emerson
Kindle Edition, 2023

Writers of historical fiction often start with a snippet of information about their own ancestors. Fascinated by the time and place in which these people lived, the writer then delves into family history and the available public information to create a story with fictional characters—because, after all, one’s own family is usually not that interesting.

Imagine, then, an author finding something in her family archives that she would rather not have learned. That is what happened when Anne Emerson discovered that her ancestor Maria Wheelock, wife of the second President of Dartmouth College, owned slaves. To acknowledge this disturbing truth seemed the right thing to do, and in her second book, The Missy Box, Emerson weaves historical fact and a novelist’s imagination to lay before the reader the extraordinary life of Maria and Maria’s own great-grandmother, who had the same name, and their relationship with enslaved people.

And what a tale it is. The story starts in 1685 when ten-year-old Maria Bordoux, is put on a ship with her nanny to sail away from France for her safety. French Protestants are being hunted down and killed, and Maria’s father, Thomas, will face this fate himself before he has the chance to escape. Maria and a group of fellow Huguenots are bound for the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies. At the very same time, another ten-year-old, an African girl named Akila, lies trapped in the hold of a slave ship bound for the same island.

Anne Emerson alternates scenes of this tropical but unhappy island with scenes from Copenhagen, Denmark, at a turning point in its history.  In 1770, Maria’s great-granddaughter arrived to be educated at the court of King Christian and his Queen. Maria had brought her own slave with her, Phebe. The court is aflutter with radical ideas promulgated by a physician, Dr. Struensee. This real person caused a crisis in the monarchy of Denmark, and Maria’s uncle Thomas, who worked at the court, was involved. Since this is a matter of historical record, it is not giving anything away to say that Maria, like her great-grandmother eighty-five years before, was sent away to safety. She went to a boarding school in Pennsylvania in I772. No doubt she became an eyewitness to the American Revolution.

This is a fast-paced, suspenseful piece of historical fiction. Recommended.