Pelican Girls

Written by Julia Malye
Review by Janice Ottersberg

Pelican Girls tells a vivid and potent story of women first discarded by society then sent as brides to shore up the floundering colony of La Louisiane in America. These courageous women survived unbelievable hardship to create new lives in the New World.

La Salpêtrière, founded by Louis XIV in 17th-century Paris, was a large compound housing women and girls in severely inhumane conditions – a prison for criminals, a reformatory for the mentally ill and undesirables, and an orphanage of forsaken children. Overcrowding at La Salpêtrière prompted sending some prison inmates to a New France colony in America. In 1720, Governor Bienville of La Louisiane no longer wanted criminals sent to the New World, but reformed and repentant fertile women and young orphans as brides.

Primarily, we follow three women over the next 14 years from the long voyage on La Baleine to La Louisiane, to their expected marriages, and building their new lives in an inhospitable land – Geneviève, imprisoned for performing abortions; Pétronille, confined by her rich family as an “unsatisfying woman”; Charlotte, abandoned as an infant, now thirteen years old. Two other women enrich the narrative: Etiennette, Charlotte’s friend from the orphanage, and Utu’wv Ecoko’nesel, an indigenous Natchez young woman.

Be it the whims of nature, the cruelties of men, or their own internal conflicts, the strong bonds these women forge help them endure and survive. Romantic love between two of the women gives a poignancy to the story. There is a certain rhythm to Malye’s stylized writing that takes getting used to, and vague plot details will eventually come into focus, so read on. This is a stand-out novel for its historical details surrounding African slavery, the native Natchez people, the conflicts between the French and natives, the growth of New Orleans, the visuals of the Louisiana swamplands in a virgin land, and especially these formidable women.