A Whale of a Time

The English excel at the nurturing and cultivation of eccentrics. From ferret legging to innkeepers who charge extra to those "whose faces he didn't care for" there's an eccentric for every taste from the land of Shakespeare. I think Will S. would have enjoyed the subject of Kate Summerscale's ode to eccentricity - Marion Barbara "Joe" Carstairs - what with the tropical islands, cross-dressing, vague paternity and feats of derring-do, how could he not?

Joe, The Queen of Whale Cay, demonstrated that with enough money and limited interest in the opinions of others one could pretty much live as one wished back in the 1920s and 1930s, including living openly as a lesbian, obsessing over a stuff doll and owning your own kingdom. Refreshingly, our boy-girl Joe is happy eccentric; generous and loyal to friends and lovers, interested in the welfare of her subjects, and generally enjoying life. Despite being inexplicably nicknamed "Betty" by the press, she also earns her title of "the fastest woman on water" by racing powerboats in the early days of the sport.

Summerscale strikes just the right note for this slim biography - light without being lightweight. She doesn't over think what motivated Joe and certainly doesn't ask the read to feel sorry for her. If Joe was a bit more comfortable proclaiming her love for inanimate objects rather than people or if she was surprisingly vague about her mother's first name, none of it seems to have resulted in regrets.

Joe was who she was, and everybody just had to accept it. She appears to have earned no enemies but many friends. And she lived well and gave generously but still managed to die with sizable estate. We should all be so lucky.  A fun, quick read.

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