Review: Mutinous Women

I picked up Joan DeJean’s Mutinous Women: How French Convicts Became Founding Mothers of the Gulf Coast (2022) at the Louisiana Book Festival last weekend and, despite putting it on my #NonfictionNovember TBR, couldn’t wait for November to actually begin before diving into it. It was my most anticipated read for this month.


“In 1719, a ship named La Mutine sailed from the French port of Le Havre, bound for the place the French called ‘the Mississippi.’ It was loaded with urgently needed goods for the fledgling French colony, but its principal commodity was a new kind of export: women.

“Falsely accused of sex crimes – some for reporting rape, others because their families were obscenely poor and it was financially expedient to imprison them – these women were prisoners, shackled in the ship’s hold. Of the 132 women who were transported this way, only sixty-two survived.

“Even though most were of modest origins, many achieved unlikely triumph across the Atlantic. They managed to carve out a place for themselves in the colonies that would have been impossible in France, making advantageous marriages and accumulating property. Many were instrumental in the building of New Orleans and in settling Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, and Mississippi. With each generation, their tens of thousands of descendants have spread ever more widely across this country.

“Drawing on an impressive range of sources to restore the voices of these women to the historical record, Mutinous Women introduces us to the Gulf South’s founding mothers.”


There is so much to love about this book, truly. Learning about these women, what they survived and the grit and determination they showed in making the most of the hands dealt them, was inspiring and affirming in all the ways I had hoped it would be when I first heard about this book. In short, it delivers on its premise – and then some.

Unfortunately, this was not an easy read. Not because of what the women went through, which was despicable and horrible at most every turn. But because of the book’s structure and style of writing.

There are sections where the narrative sings – particularly the beginning and the end, where DeJean uses the story of one “mutinous woman” in particular to bookend the work. Through these sections, the story is brought to life on the page and underscores the heart of DeJean’s reason for writing about these women in the first place: their undeserved historical obscurity and, in nearly every case, the fact that their true lives were not only lost to the annals of history but misrecorded to the extent they were recorded at all.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book reads largely like scattershot narrative built around the innumerable documents DeJean unearthed in order to put the truth of these women’s lives on the record once and for all. The work put into this book was clearly immense and meticulous, and there is extraordinary value in having these women’s stories told, finally, truthfully. But the sheer magnitude of the work also gets in the way of telling a coherent story, with paragraphs darting in and out of so many lives – some interwoven, others only very loosely connected – that it can be difficult to follow, making the reading a tough slog at times, accomplished only through great interest in the topic and sheer will to see it through.

In some ways, this disjointed structure and writing is the inevitable result of the project’s aim of putting all the women’s lives on the record. When they were all still in France and all being acted upon in largely the same way, by largely the same forces, it is much easier to write about them through the same lens with the same narrative arc that makes for a seamless story. Once they land in Louisiana, however, the facts on the ground make that no longer possible. The reality of conditions in the colony – the chaos they encounter upon arrival, the ways they scatter throughout the vast territory, and the many tacks they take toward rebuilding their lives – make it much more difficult to maintain a narrative through-line. Their once singular story evolves into a multitude of variations. As a result, “Part I: France” (Chs. 1-5) has a much more coherent story line than “Part II: The Second Coast” (Chs. 6-14). Breaking the second Part into sections by location was helpful in this regard, but didn’t resolve the overall dilemma.

Despite that, I do think the book is worth the effort, especially for anyone interested in the history of French Louisiana and women’s roles in its foundational years, or for those who simply enjoy researching genealogy, property records, and other historical documents, and for that reason, I do recommend it. The read is not an easy one, but it was ultimately enjoyable nonetheless.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s