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She holds degrees from MacMurray College and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has taught writing and literature at Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and aboard ships at sea. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the Authors Guild, and SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research.
William H. Gass described her writing as "quiet, lyrical, deeply meditative" prose from which a "lovely and mysterious" meaning emerges.... "It is a process that is wonderful to watch." Novelist Hilma Wolitzer wrote that Petroski "understands perfectly the world of childhood and makes the reader see the ways in which we become adults."
Maritime historian Joan Druett described A Bride's Passage as "a superbly written, formidably researched retelling of Susan Hathorn's honeymoon voyage through the pages of her diary." Publishers Weekly's starred review described A Bride's Passage as "a compelling contribution to maritime literature and the lives of Victorian-age women...."
She has been awarded National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in Creative Writing, residency fellowships at the Corporation of Yaddo, and has been a Scholar and a Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. She won the Texas Institute of Letters Prize in short fiction, and her biography of Susan Hathorn, A Bride's Passage: Susan Hathorn's Year Under Sail, won the John Lyman Prize for Biography and was hailed as "a valuable social history of a maritime family in mid-19th-century New England."