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Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World [Paperback]

Catalina De Erauso , Gabriel Stepto , Michele Stepto
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

24 Jun 1997
Named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1996

One of the earliest known autobiographies by a woman, this is the extraordinary tale of Catalina de Erauso, who in 1599 escaped from a Basque convent dressed as a man and went on to live one of the most wildly fantastic lives of any woman in history. A soldier in the Spanish army, she traveled to Peru and Chile, became a gambler, and even mistakenly killed her own brother in a duel. During her lifetime she emerged as the adored folkloric hero of the Spanish-speaking world. This delightful translation of Catalina's own work introduces a new audience to her audacious escapades.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (24 Jun 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807070734
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807070734
  • Product Dimensions: 20.4 x 13.7 x 1.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,064,837 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars 26 Jun 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Very interesting story
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Life's more fun as a man than a nun 24 Jun 2004
By Lynn Harnett - Published on
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.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Different Conquistador 30 July 2000
By A Customer - Published on
Catalina de Erauso grew up in a Basque convent, but spent most of her days as a soldier in the Spanish army in the mid-1600s. This brief autobiography is not a typical tale of military exploits. Although brawling constitutes much of the action, this is the story of a female transvestite. De Erauso dressed as a man to escape from her convent in 1599. Keeping up the disguise for reasons that included an attraction to "pretty faces," she traveled to the Americas in 1603 and fought in the conquest of Chile. When finally forced to reveal her true sex, de Erauso attained brief celebrity in the Baroque world. In 1624, the pope granted her permission to continue her life garbed in male attire. A forword and an excellent introduction by the translators places this fascinating story in historical context.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gotta Love the Basque People 30 Sep 2013
By Joey Degollado - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
My interest in GLBT history lead me to this book which is a memoir of the first Spanish transvestite in New Spain. Its short but its a good story I must admit. Its very interesting how when Catalina demonstrates the most aggressive traits of a man is when she gets in trouble and how she constantly runs to the church when she is in trouble even though she escaped from one.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I ran him through, and down he went." 2 Feb 2011
By Patto - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a thoroughly captivating autobiography by a seventeenth-century Spanish woman who lived most of her life as a man.

Catalina de Erauso was placed by her family in a convent at age four and escaped on an impulse at age fifteen. She cut her hair and made her undergarments into boy's clothes. All this without a plan. But once Catalina tasted masculine freedom, there was no going back.

She must have been exceptionally bright. Despite her total lack of life experience, she functioned successfully as a page at court, a ship's boy, a merchant's assistant and a soldier (promoted to Lieutenant for her valor in Chile). She survived a shipwreck, attacks by bandits, bloody battles and numerous duels and street fights.

Catalina was hotheaded and quick with her sword. A frequently occurring line in her memoirs is: "I ran him through, and down he went."

Her constant reversals of fortune and near escapes from marriage and from hanging make for breathtaking reading. Although a self-confessed thief, gambler and murderer, Catalina is strangely likeable. Not the least bit introspective or digressive, she's quite matter of fact about her exploits. A genuine man-woman of action.

Catalina's story also gives us an inside view of Spain at the height of its lust for conquest in the New World.

The introduction does a great job of analyzing Catalina in the context of her era. It also fills in details that the memoirs leave out. Such as, what did Catalina look like? And how did she end up?

Catalina became a legend in her day. But oddly, her memoirs were not published until 1829. Thank goodness they were not lost!

I'd recommend Lieutenant Nun to any reader interested in history, gender studies, extraordinary characters and/or over-the-top adventures.
5.0 out of 5 stars What a fantastic and short read! 16 April 2014
By Ziya Kardas - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
What a fantastic and short read! I had to read this for college but man it was a thrill! Just do it!
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