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Interview with Rachel Rueckert



A woman in old-fashioned dress stands on a pier watching a listing sailing ship; cover of Rachel Rueckert's If the Tide Turns

Everyone loves a good pirate novel, and this one is quite out of the ordinary. Based on the life of the actual pirate chief Sam Bellamy, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it explores the events leading up to his decision to, in the terminology of the day, “go on the account” (become a pirate) and his short-lived career in that role. What is most interesting is that these pirates are in many ways the opposite of what we have been taught to expect, whether that is lawless and cruel adventurers à la Blackbeard or would-be comedians like Disney’s Jack Sparrow. As noted in the interview that follows with the author Rachel Rueckert about her just-released novel If the Tide Turns, these pirates run a fledgling democracy where all decisions are taken by majority rule, and they prefer to avoid killing, as well as harsh punishments such as keelhauling and walking the plank. They would much rather invite the often-downtrodden crewmen of the ships they attack to join the pirate ranks. And that’s the historically attested part.


The focus of the story, though, alternates between Sam’s perspective and the more fictionalized character of Maria Brown, the most beautiful woman in Eastham, Massachusetts, a small town on Cape Cod. Maria’s wealthy family has every expectation that she will bow to convention, which in 1715 means that she will marry well, take care of her husband’s household, and bear as many children as possible. Maria herself has no such ambitions—at least not if they involve the man her parents have selected for her. She and Sam click at first sight, but if that were all it takes, there would be no story. Sam swears he will make his fortune and return, but as the months go by, Maria’s hope that he will keep that promise becomes harder to sustain.


The third element that sets this novel apart is the inclusion of the Wampanoag, the native people of Cape Cod, who welcomed the Pilgrims shortly after the arrival of the Mayflower but by 1715 have developed far more jaundiced views of the colonists, who first seize, then destroy, the tribal lands and the economy based on them. Through the character of Abiah Sampson, a Native American healer and activist, we get an additional perspective on the impact of colonization on the people and the environment that had existed in Massachusetts for millennia before the Puritans arrived.


Set a bit more than halfway between that fateful arrival and the 1776 Revolution, this novel reveals the costs as well as the benefits of the American Dream. Read on for Rachel Rueckert’s answers to my questions about her novel and how it came to be.


In your historical note, you give us a detailed explanation of how you came to write this novel. Could you provide a quick summary here for readers who have not had yet a chance to read your book?


The love story of Maria and Samuel Bellamy swept me up while on a trip to Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 2015. Walking along the hot wharf, I found myself lured into a pirate museum. Though I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the Golden Age of Pirates, what bowled me over was what I learned about this particular pirate, Samuel Bellamy. His crew had a democratic government aboard run by “articles” and votes, a system with equal pay, racial diversity, and an early form of workers’ compensation. They called themselves “Robin Hood’s men” and seemed to see themselves as part of a social movement against corrupt governments and oppression. It felt remarkably modern despite happening over three hundred years ago.


Sam’s experience was more interesting to me than kitschy, Hollywood versions of pirates. I vowed right there and then, leaving the pirate museum, that someone had to write this novel—and if no one else was doing it, then I would.


I’m so glad I did. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became by the historical reality of pirates and, as readers will also see, life after the Salem witch trials.


Let’s start with Sam, since he is the outsider at the beginning of the story. What brings him to Cape Cod?


Sam came to Cape Cod to find work. When he was eight years old, he was “pressed” (aka, kidnapped) to serve as a cabin boy on a ship. From there, his life led him into the British Royal Navy. But Sam—along with forty thousand other navy men—was put out of work once the War of Spanish Succession ended. He had an aunt who lived in Cape Cod, so he rooted himself there while scrambling to find work.


It isn’t a coincidence that this wave of thousands of suddenly unemployed sailors overlapped with the Golden Age of Piracy. Most were young and in their twenties. Many were the “eat rich” of the day. There was virtually no upward mobility for them.


Maria Brown is also based on a historical character, but she is much more your creation than Sam. What can you tell us about the person on whom her character is based?


Maria is well-inked into Cape Cod lore, but not as clearly defined as Sam. Maria is too often a footnote in this history. Though Sam is in the history books, as is his ship, the big WHY for his motivation—the reason why any of this story happened—gets washed over. Maria was certainty real (I had some good conversations at the Wellfleet History Society about this during my research trips). But Maria’s lived experience, like that of many women of the time, has been overshadowed. I selected the Maria in the genealogical record who seemed the most likely.


The Maria in my heart and mind, to have survived so much, must have had voice and agency. To create her character, I had to rely on imagination and research about what life was like for women at this time on Cape Cod. Fortunately, I had a lot to work with. But like Maria, I relied on intuition when necessary. I clarify what is real and what is fiction in my author’s note.


And how would you describe your Maria, as a personality? What does she want most from life, and what keeps her from attaining it?


According to the sources, Maria was a rebellious, feisty young woman. She was the town beauty, with an unparalleled talent for weaving. But she had a restless spirit like the Nauset wind. And as Maria’s mother tells her in my book, “Life is not kind to women who are different.”


In my book, seventeen-year-old Maria wants, more than anything, to be able to learn to swim. This is most improper for a woman of her station. When her path crosses Sam’s, he starts giving her swimming lessons. But it doesn’t take long before Sam probes what Maria really wants, something deeper and vaster than the concrete goal of learning to hold her own in the water.


Maria’s closest relationship, until she runs into Sam, is with her sister Elizabeth. Introduce us to Elizabeth, please, and give us a sense of what binds the two girls together despite the differences in their characters.


Though this novel is centered around an epic love story, sisterhood, brotherhood, and friendships are absolutely essential. Maria’s younger sister, Elizabeth, has her own inner rebellion happening. Elizabeth is an avid reader and has romantic feelings for her best friend, Lydia.


Maria often thinks of Elizabeth as the wiser, more cautious of the two of them. Elizabeth knows how to hold her tongue and appears better behaved. But in reality, the sisters have a lot in common. Though their personalities are opposite, they are both keeping secrets—from themselves and from each other. The ways they ultimately choose to live their lives are both valid, though they each—in their own way—do not fit the roles society has given to them.


Despite Sam’s almost instant attraction to Maria and hers to him, he soon leaves Cape Cod. What drives that decision, and what is he envisioning at the moment when he makes it?


Maria’s the daughter of a wealthy Cape Cod family. Sam’s a poor sailor. Neither is free in the social orders they were born into, much less free to fall in love without consequences.


As Sam says in my book, he can’t exactly approach Maria’s father and say, “Honorable Sir, I know you have the highest expectations of securing an advantageous marriage for the most sought-after girl in Eastham. Might I offer your daughter the hand of an unemployed, nonbelieving orphan?”


He has to get rich, and fast. When a fleet of Spanish galleons sinks off the coast of Florida, along with all their treasure, Sam joins a crew to go treasure hunting. Things go awry from there.


Abiah Sampson ends up playing an important role in Maria’s life. We won’t say why, because that would give away spoilers, but what can you tell us about her? She, too, is based on a historical person.


I loosely based Abiah’s character on a historical figure named Delilah Sampson Gibbs. We know precious little about Gibbs’s life. What I did learn I gathered from the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum, oral history documents, land deeds, and from Linda Coombs, an Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe member and historian, who helped put on an exhibit about Gibbs’s life at the Wellfleet Historical Society & Museum.


The Wellfleet exhibit describes Gibbs as a woman with a strong understanding of the landscape and the medicinal properties of plants. She used her vast knowledge of herbs to heal a case of breast cancer in a white woman. Gibbs applied medicinal poultices to the tumor until one day, the tumor came off. Despite not receiving proper recognition during her lifetime, Gibbs “possessed the knowledge and skills she so willingly shared.”


I am enormously indebted to historian Linda Coombs. She was the one to name Abiah Sampson after reading my story and consulting documents from that period. During this time of imposed Christianity at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Wampanoag peoples spoke English and had biblical names. Colonial restrictions forced them away from outward manifestations of their culture, such as having tattoos, wearing traditional clothing, and using dugout mishoon canoes. Most people likely did not live in wetus anymore, though some kept wetus next to their European-style homes through the first half of the nineteenth century. The Wampanoag were forced to live in “praying towns” and on “Indian Lands,” undesirable areas set aside as reservations by the colonists.


Linda Coombs’s extensive knowledge informed Abiah’s character and representation. Coombs’s feedback and thorough notes were invaluable. Though Abiah works as a political leader, most Wampanoag—vastly outnumbered by the white population—relied on less obvious forms of subversion to avoid dire consequences, such as imprisonment or death.


This novel was released on March 26, 2024. Are you already working on something new?

I am thrilled to say that my next book, The Determined, is another historical fiction novel that features pirates—female pirates!


This book is set during the Golden Age of Pirates and is based on the real experiences of two of that era’s most fascinating pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who dared to subvert the rules and roles assigned to women of their time. The Determined is slated for publication in March 2025.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

I appreciate the thoughtfulness and depth of your curiosity. Thanks for all you do for readers and writers! Happy sailing.



Photograph of the author Rachel Rueckert against the background of a brownstone building and a bush in leaf

Rachel Rueckert is an award-winning writer, editor, and teacher. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and an M.Ed. from Boston University. She returns to Cape Cod regularly for research and freedom in the shape of solace. This is her debut novel, though she continues to excavate fascinating real pirates—such as Mary Read and Anne Bonny—from the sands of history. Learn more on her website and social media: rachelrueckert.com and linktr.ee/rachelrueckert.


Photo credit @Mariya Manzhos. Reused with permission from Kensington Books.

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