National Press Club

Herman's book on female African king wins Maryland prize

February 27, 2013 | By Audrey E Hoffer |

King Peggy, written by Club member Eleanor Herman, recently won a Maryland book prize.

King Peggy, written by Club member Eleanor Herman, recently won a Maryland book prize.

It all started at a Ghana Embassy reception.

“I didn’t know anyone and looked around for the most interesting person,” said National Press Club member Eleanor Herman, author of "King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village."

“I saw a woman standing alone across the room who looked so regal," Herman continued. "I went over to introduce myself and asked if I could get her something to eat and drink. ‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘I’m a secretary at the embassy but I’m also a king, and kings can’t eat or drink in public.’”

Amazed, intrigued and sensing a story, Herman chatted with Peggielene Bartels. Herman was drawn into her stranger-than-fiction tale of a Ghanaian-born American citizen anointed King of Otuam, a 7,000-inhabitant West African village in Ghana.

By the reception’s end, Herman was spiritually, emotionally and literally invested in Peggy and her kingdom.

“I knew I wanted to go there. Most of the kings and queens I’ve written about are dead,” said Herman, who also has written Sex with Kings, Sex with the Queen, and Mistress of the Vatican.

The book that emanated from the Ghana Embassy meeting, King Peggy, recently was selected by the Maryland Humanities Council as the One Maryland One Book for 2013.

The group elicits a public call for titles every fall, said Andrea Lewis, coordinator of the program. This year, the theme was "a pivotal and impactful moment in time that changed things." Herman’s book fell neatly into that category and was chosen from a field of 140 books suggested by readers across the state.

Peggy was living in Silver Spring, Md., when she received a surprise middle-of-the-night phone call from an uncle in Ghana. He told her she had inherited the kingship.

She flew across the world and took stock of her kingdom, intending to keep her day job at the embassy.

The fairytale bubble burst when King Peggy toured her empire. She found no running water, no school, no doctor, a wrecked palace, a bankrupt town treasury -- and men who wantonly hit their wives.

“As an American, she had absolutely no tolerance for this,” Herman said.

The new king’s first action was an edict against wife beating punishable with jail time.

Then she brought in seven boreholes — which provide safe drinking water to rural communities — and placed them strategically around town so that children, especially girls, wouldn’t have to walk so far to collect water.

In addition, she launched a microfinance program for the town’s women, all of whom fully paid back each loan.

Herman was swept up in the story and has visited Otuam several times. She sponsors village children, organizes fundraisers, participates in community programs and shares speaking engagements and a deep friendship with King Peggy, who still works at the Ghana Embassy.

King Peggy is available online through and off-the-shelf at Barnes & Noble. Movie rights have been sold.

Figures like King Peggy may be subjects of future Herman books.

“I like looking at the role of women in power politics, where they aren't always welcome," Herman said.