Interview with Mary Coffin Starbuck from Suzanne Woods Fisher’s Minding the Light

Minding the Light-Book Cover


Novel Pastimes:

Today we have a very special guest. In her day, this woman was likened to Nantucket’s Deborah, the Judge of the Old Testament. Today’s guest is Mary Coffin Starbuck of Nantucket Island. Mary, like Deborah the Judge, lived during a time when women were not given much respect, yet she managed to rise above and stand apart. Welcome, Mary.


Mary: ‘Tis a pleasure to be here.


NP: Your last name is quite famous. Are you related to the Starbuck coffee company?


Mary: Nay. Tea is my preference, strong tea, like most of my countrymen.


NP: Ah, but of course! We’re jumping back in American history quite a few centuries. Mary, would you remind readers what year this is?


Mary: The year is 1663, and I live on Nantucket Island. My father draggedmoved us to the island a few years ago, with several other families from the mainland. It was rather a barren place, filled only with Wampanoag Indians who ignored us and generally kept to their side of the island.


NP: Why did your father choose to move to Nantucket?


Mary: ‘Tis a long and involved story. Suffice to say that my father, Tristram Coffin, left England to seek a better life the colonies. That worked for a while, until the Puritans’ invasive grasp drove him to seek a place where no one could tell him how to live. Hence, we now live on a cold and foggy island thirty miles off the coast, far, far away from the reach of the Puritans. Father seeks Utopia. Oddly enough, in his search, I have found my own version of Utopia.


NP: Don’t stop now. Tell us about your Utopia.


Mary (blushing): A young man named Nathaniel Starbuck also came to the island with his family. We married not many months ago. Currently, we are living with his family, but I have a hope that we might soon construct a home of our own, closer to my trading store. I do believe his mother has a hope for that, as well.


NP: How do you enjoy living with your in-laws?


Mary: My father-in-law, Edward Starbuck, is a dear man, though not often at home. He spends much time Christianizing the Wampanoags on the other side of the island. Nathaniel is frequently with the Wampanoags as well, but for different reasons. They are teaching him to capture whales. That leaves much time together with Catherine, my mother-in-law, and Esther, Nathaniel’s youngest sister. Esther is a thorn in my side.


We have very different views, Catherine and I. She would prefer that I not continue working at my trading store. Happily, Nathaniel disagrees. ‘Tis not often that he contradicts his mother, but in this case, he has supported my desire.


NP: It’s known that your husband was illiterate, yet you are a learned woman.


Mary (visibly stiffening her spine): There are many kinds of intelligence. ‘Tis in my husband’s blood to be a seaman. The ocean is his book. He reads it as well I can read any book.


NP: Tell us about your trading store.


Mary: ‘Tis my greatest joy. Apart from my husband, of course. With the store, I am able to interact with nearly everyone on the island. Everyone is in need of something. My brothers sail back and forth to Cape Cod quite often, so I send along with them items to trade and a long list of things to procure. It is has been quite a successful venture. I have no intention of giving it up, even after this babe is born.


NP: We’ve seen pictures of your accounting book. You certainly have a head for math.


Mary: Aye, I do!‘Tis nothing. Though I will say that keeping track of trade accounts takes a careful attention to detail. More importantly, the trading store has become the heart and hub of our community. As people come in and warm themselves by the fire, there is time for important conversation. Many tell me their troubles, and I do my best to help them.


NP: So what’s this about your journal? And tell us about the secret buried under the oak tree.


Mary (smile quickly fades until she is stone-faced): How did you happen upon that knowledge? Did Eleazer Foulger speak to you of this? I feared this very thing!


NP: No, no. We read about it in Phoebe’s Light, and more of it in Minding the Light. Can you tell us the end of the story? How do things wrap up in The Light Before Day?


Mary (indignant): Nay. Not a word will you get from me. A secret ‘tis a secret. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be off and tend to my customers.


Suzanne Woods FisherSuzanne Woods Fisheris an award-winning, bestselling author of more than two dozen novels, including Phoebe’s Light,the Amish Beginnings series, The Bishop’s Family series, and The Inn at Eagle Hill series, as well as nonfiction books about the Amish, including Amish Peaceand The Heart of the Amish. She lives in California. Learn more at and follow Suzanne on Facebook @SuzanneWoodsFisherAuthor and Twitter @suzannewfisher.

Bonus pictures:

Mary Coffin Starbuck’s Accounting book…credited to Nantucket Historical Association.

All other pix…take by Suzanne




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