Tidewater Review - December 2007

Fireside Reading


Anne Stinson

     I’ve got two books for your Christmas season reading pleasure. I know you finished gift shopping and addressing cards in August and have plenty of leisure time this month. No? Well, maybe you can find time to read in January. These are two you don’t want to miss. Both fixate on water, one about our own Chesapeake Bay and the other off Jamaica in the Caribbean.

Chesapeake. Exploring the Water Trail of Captain John Smith, by John Page Williams with a foreword by Gilbert Grosvenor. Published by the National Geographic. 192 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-4262-0069-4 soft cover.
      I can’t imagine anyone better suited to tell the story of Captain John Smith’s energetic mapping of the Chesapeake Bay than John Page Williams. Since childhood, the longtime senior naturalist of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been fascinated by the Bay, which he calls “the crown jewel” of America’s waterways. He has been swimming, fishing, crabbing and boating on the Bay all his life. He’s a natural to retrace the two years Smith and a small crew explored the region’s “faire Bay” in a shallop.
      It has been 400 years since the adventurer landed and established a settlement on the James River. This past summer, to celebrate Jamestown’s four centuries, a replica of a shallop was built at the Sultana Shipyard in Chestertown to recreate the amazing water trail Smith explored and mapped in his search for two goals - a water route to Asia and a source of wealth in furs and gold for England.
      As history shows, he found neither, but managed to plant the English flag and claim the continent for England. An earlier attempt to colonize North America in what is now North Carolina in 1585 by Sir Walter Raleigh failed, but he also sailed into the Chesapeake Bay on that voyage. He named the region Virginia in honor of his sponsor, Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. The Spaniards, who were already in Florida, had entered the Bay several times before Raleigh’s abortive attempt, but left no settlements.
      England rose to the challenge, being well aware of Spain’s domination in Central and South America and its wealth of gold shipments. The English could hesitate no more. Under James I, Elizabeth’s successor, the Virginia Colony formed to fund Captain Smith’s voyage with three ships bound across the ocean for a five-month journey to enforce her share of the new world. Also aboard was a motley crew, with high-born gentlemen (enough to resent Smith’s humble origins), common craftsmen and soldiers of fortune.
      Smith was a man who brooked no nonsense. He was an excellent sailor and a fair leader, making him popular with the crew, the men essential to the success of building a permanent town with fortifications and venturing forth to chart the lay of the land.
      The Virginia Company had planned well. On board was the shallop, built in two halves to be joined once the party arrived. This was the vessel that Smith commanded as he prowled the edges of the Bay, mapping the rivers that fed it and taking the shallop upriver to the fall line in many of them. His maps are accurate to this day and are reproduced in this amazing book.
      The book is also lavishly illustrated with contemporary photographs, all of them to the National Geographic’s high standards. Many of them were done by David Harp, an award-winning photographer from Cambridge.
      In addition to Captain Smith’s maps, the book includes a modern map tracing Smith’s two Bay explorations, one in 1607 and another in the following summer of 1608. The new map is an essential guide to the Water Trail that modern boaters may follow. It shows the path of the new shallop built for Jamestown’s celebration in summer 2007.
      What I found most interesting in the text of the original explorations and the map’s verification is Smith’s neglect of mid-Bay River systems on the Eastern Shore. After traversing the Pocomoke and Nanticoke Rivers to their headwaters, Smith crossed the Bay to continue his western shore mapping, sailing or rowing to the Patapsco as far as today’s Baltimore and the Gunpowder River before backtracking to enter the mighty Potomac and its tributaries all the way to the falls at present-day Washington, D.C, and then back to Jamestown.
      The summer of 1608 found him back at the tiller of the shallop, bound north.
      Again, he hugged the western coastline. He stayed well off Smith and Bloodsworth Islands and went on to record the Patuxent River and its creeks. He made a loop at the top of the Bay, entering the Susquehanna, the Elk and the Sassafras before heading south. There is no waterway to Asia in this Bay, he concluded.
      On the return trip to Jamestown, he mapped the beautiful Rappahannock almost to its source and made a short trip up the Piankatank. By this time, his crew was muttering about getting back to Jamestown, so his entry into the York River was brief.
      How could he have missed the little and big Choptank rivers, the Miles and the Chester rivers?
      Captain Smith’s fitness for the task was evident in more than seamanship. His diplomacy with the native tribes was a huge bonus. Some were more warlike than others, but his bravery was legendary. He ingratiated himself, even after capture, with many chiefs and induced them to supply food during harsh winters. His rescue from the brink of death by Pohaten’s daughter, Pocahontas, is the stuff of legend. It’s most likely true, but there was no romance. Smith said she was age 10 at the time. Even in captivity, Smith made the best of a bad situation and learned the Algonquin-based language of the tribes.
      John Page Williams brings this dramatic era vividly to life as he describes the hardship and back-breaking labor of the settlement and voyages of discovery. He also invites the reader to retrace the Water Trail, either all or parts of it, in a variety of boats. Some areas are easily accessible by canoe or kayak, as he has done it, or small boats in the shallow tributaries, or sailboats and power boats for the open Bay and broad river mouths. His appreciation of the river banks, many of them almost as undeveloped as they were when Captain John Smith saw them, make modern exploration irresistible.
      The book Chesapeake. Exploring the Water Trail of Captain John Smith is a national treasure, as is the Bay it describes.

Blue Harbor Revisited, A Gift From Noel Coward, by Elizabeth Sharland. iUniverse, Inc., publisher. 165 pages. ISBN: 978-0-595-45284-2. (paperback).

     The author calls this a theatre novel, centering around the late playwright, songwriter, bon vivant and wit Noel Coward and his influences on a fictional bunch of actors and playwrights. The narrator, an aging actress, is mourning the death of her fiancé in an automobile accident.
     The theme of the story, aside from the Noel Coward connection, is the close bond among actors. Their profession is so time-consuming that their fellow thespians are often their closest “families.”
      Still numbed by grief, the narrator meets an old acquaintance, an actress who is retiring from the stage to follow her alcoholic husband to a new job in Australia. The friend, Joan, is lagging behind for the task of moving her 80-ish mother, a famous actress in Noel Coward’s day, to an assisted living home for aged actors and actresses.
      While awaiting the move to be finalized, Joan invites the narrator to join her mother, daughter and herself on a trip to Jamaica to stay at Coward’s home, Blue Harbor, before it’s sold. Its furniture is exactly as it was in Cowards lifetime when it was a happy spot for all his theater friends to holiday as his guests.
      Who could resist? The narrator has won an Oscar the previous year for her starring role in a movie and has turned down lesser roles her agent proffers. A vacation in the sun is welcome. Off the four women, spanning three generations, fly from London’s wet, cold and dreary winter to Jamaica.
      Time-out here while I introduce more of the characters. There are so many you can’t tell the score without a playbill. The narrator finally (way into the book) gets a name - she’s Nicole. You’ll also meet Joan, her mother Edith and daughter Charlotte, a drama school student, and later in the book, Brian, his sister Beryl, his fiancée Jane, the hunky Nigel, Diane, a cruise ship entrepreneur, Nicole’s old friend Ellen and her fiancé, rich as Croesus Ian. And these are only the main players.
      But Noel Coward’s house in Jamaica! Heaven! Bliss! In a single week in the tropics, Nicole meets an old acquaintance, a failed actor and playwright, Brian, who’s seriously depressed that all his plays have been rejected. He takes his own life after Nicole tries to console him, but she dashes off for a tryst with Nigel. Uh-oh. More grief and guilt for Nicole for not realizing the depth of Brian’s depression.
      Meanwhile, the reader gets a tour of the great man’s house, his guest cottages and his final simple house atop the cliff. Palm trees rustle, the surf booms without ceasing, multiple drinks are consumed and lazy days pass at Coward’s pool or on the beach below the cliff with languid swims in the turquoise sea.
      Back in London, grey and dank as ever, melodrama piles up like a third-rate company doing East Lynne.
      We see how resourceful and neurotic actors are in real life as well as behind the footlights. Petty quarrels, jealousy and great tales of theater history get told. The reader is left with a big question - how do these mostly unemployed prima donnas afford hopping to New York on a whim or financing a trip to the font of it all, Blue Harbor Revisited?
      It’s all make believe, of course, but a good, juicy daydream for a snowy night.