Celebrated in Spanish legends and folklore as the marvelous Lieutenant Nun, Catalina de Erauso was born to a prosperous Basque family in 1585 and sent to a convent at age 4. Destined to become a nun, there she remained until age 15. Days before she was to take her final vows, she escaped, taking only needle, thread, scissors and a few coins.
Despite her previously sheltered existence, de Erauso plunged into her new, wordly life as a man with unusual gusto, as described in her memoir, Lieutenant Nun.
Written some 20 years after her flight, when she correctly deemed confession of her ruse and her still virginal state might save her from the rope or an even more ignominious fate, the memoir describes at breathtaking pace a life of soldiering, banditry and dueling in the wilds of Peru and Chile.
While this slim volume is packed with action, there is little self-reflection or explanation. Transforming her convent undergarments to boy's clothing, she quickly obtains a position with a scholar, runs off when he apparently exhibits too much attention in the boy, and becomes a page at the king's Court.
But when her father (who does not recognize her) appears at court, distraught over his daughter's disappearance, she slips away again. After two comfortable years as a page elsewhere, she quits, "for no more reason than it suited me," returns to her hometown, sees her mother in church (who also fails to recognize her) and leaves, drifting until she finds work as a cabin boy on her uncle's galleon.
While convent education may have fitted her for work as a page, nothing had prepared her for shipboard life. "The work was new to me and I had a hard time at first," is all she has to say about that.
Finding favor with her uncle, who knows her only as another Basque, she jumps ship in the New World, stealing 500 of his pesos and makes her way aboard merchant ships, beginning a pattern of prospering until some slight to her pride causes her to retaliate with knife or sword, necessitating flight or, if captured, jail time, church sanctuaries and scantily described negotiations among law officers, churchmen and the aggrieved parties.
Needing money she signs on as a soldier, serves with an older brother she had never met, and endures "three years of misery" fighting Indians "with everything but discomfort in short supply" .
Following a disastrous duel in which she kills her brother, de Erauso's career takes a downswing into banditry and the life of a gambler with brawling and knife fights involving several brushes with the gallows.
Although wounded in battle and once "stripped" for the rack, de Erauso never explains how she conceals her gender. Her attitude seems entirely that of the colonial male. One murderous knife fight, for instance, is justified when "my companion, with plenty of people around to hear it, told me I lied like a cuckold."
Her well-timed confession to a sympathetic bishop not only saved her from prosecution, but made her a celebrity. She was later granted dispensation by the Pope to live as a man and she finished her life as a merchant in Mexico.
De Erauso's delivery is deadpan and devoid of introspection. There is no purple prose, quite the opposite. While the pace is headlong, it raises more questions than it answers. But Michelle Stepto's useful introduction fills in much of the essential historical and social background, yielding a fascinating portrait of a very peculiar adventurer's life in colonial Chile.