News & Politics

They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways, and Renegades

Well-researched vignettes strung together with narrative. . . buoyed by Holland’s sly humor

At the start of her book, Loudoun County resident and occasional Washingtonian contributor Barbara Holland quotes a proverb: “A whistling woman and a crowing hen, both will come to no good end.” For the next 268 pages, the author carries a beguiling tune.

Holland recounts the lives of women, from Cleopatra to Amelia Earhart to Dian Fossey, who defied social norms to live their own adventures—women like Irish pirate Grace O’Malley, who terrorized the seas with her fleet, and James Barry, a British army surgeon and soldier who, “after a dashing and distinguished career on several continents, retired to London with full honors, died, and was discovered to have been a woman all along.”

The book, a series of well-researched vignettes strung together with narrative, could have become a long-winded history lesson, but it’s buoyed by Holland’s sly humor. She scoffs at famous depictions of her adventurers, raising a skeptical eyebrow at George Bernard Shaw’s “silly” Cleopatra in his play Caesar and Cleopatra: “This is absurd. She was merry company, it’s said, but never silly. You could get killed being silly.”

Neither does Holland puff up the women as invincible heroines. Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde), she writes, was a “moony little girl, a poetry-reader, a romantic. She could have been my daughter, or yours.”

As the proverb warns, these renegades did not come to a good end—or any end. They live on in the pages of Holland’s entertaining book.

Barbara Holland