Anne Stinson - January 2007
What is it about women writers and the Chesapeake Bay and watermen’s villages and islands? It feels as if this reviewer has been swamped by a tsunami of words about this locale. Two of the female writers wax lyrical about working on tugboats, in spite of tales of danger, sweat, noise and grime. I also recently reviewed a book of poetry, wonderfully wry and witty, and almost all the poems inspired by tidewater influences. Gentle twitting about proud and independent watermen is the basis for great satire/cum/mystery novels, two of which have been under my reading lamp in the last three months.
The Eastern Shore and tidewater Virginia have been favorite subjects for fact and fiction for many years, of course, but it’s my impression that up until recently it’s been a man’s game.
Off the top of my head, the 19th century gave us The Entailed Hat, a piece of fiction remembered only because it was set on the exotic Delmarva Peninsula. I haven’t read it. I’ve only heard of it. It’s one of those stories like War and Peace that everybody knows about but hardly anybody has actually read.
Hulbert Footner’s Rivers of the Eastern Shore, part of the Depression era’s WPA series on Rivers of the United States, has been a classic beloved of ensuing generations.
Moving along to the second half of the 20th century, the most recent big literary splashes about our surf and turf were both written by men: James Michener gave us that huge yawn, Chesapeake, and William Warner wrote the unlikely best-seller Beautiful Swimmers, a book of brilliant prose and scientific veracity that glorified crabs. That’s a big order. He carried it off with great panache.
I had the good luck to interview Warner shortly after Beautiful Swimmers was published, and he told a funny story about the long process of researching and writing it. His children kept pestering him about the subject and what he planned to call the book. “It was about the time the movie Jaws was such a sensation,” Warner said. “I told my kids I was going to title the book Claws. They loved the idea.”
More major talent has surfaced in Bay area writings by native son Tom Horton, who combines a graceful writing style with a clarion call to pay attention to the myriad signs of declining health of the Bay and its bounty.
Horton, like the aforementioned male authors, has produced books, but he’s a cross-over writer. He’s also a former newspaperman with the Baltimore Sun, as is Eugene Meyer, his counterpart on the Washington Post. All men writers, all impassioned in various degrees, but all a tad short in the gushing department.
That’s where the ladies shine.
Lots of them, I have to say, write in a style I can only call “tarted up,” a common trait in the genre known as romance novels. Okay, I plead guilty to the tendency of my own sex to get carried overboard sometimes. We embrace the tendency to gush over the wind in our hair when we’re freezing our butts off on a skipjack in winter. I’ve done it myself enough times to blush at the memory of turning in purple prose on a news feature story.
Up until the sexual revolution, the cast of characters in romance novels was formulaic. All the male characters were tall, big-muscled (tonging and dredging for oysters will do that, we’re informed), and only the really bad guys were short and wiry. All the leading ladies in these tales were certifiable virgins. The classic plot led from meeting cute to her capitulation to wild passion in the last chapter. The book jacket trumpeted the reward for sloshing through turgid prose. That’s why they were called Bodice Rippers.
Hey, don’t knock it. Millions of women, young and old, lead lives of terminal dullness and adore an occasional dose of fantasy. That’s why grocery stores stock these paperbacks at the checkout racks. When an afternoon prospect holds no more excitement than folding the laundry, a daydream looks pretty tempting.
The fact remains that in my recent reading in the genre, only one of the authors (and I’ll come to that eventually) resists the temptation to please the ladies who lunch as well as the ladies who aren’t ladies.
My reactions (and the gush factor or “tarted up” quotient) to books I’ve read lately follow in no particular order:
I was absolutely gripped by E.V. Lambert’s Tugging on a Heartstring, the account of several summers of her adolescence as a deckhand on her dad’s tugboat.
At the age of 13, Emily and her year-older sister began to live aboard the working tugboat that moved barges up and down the middle Atlantic coast, mainly in the Chesapeake Bay. Dad didn’t cut the girls any slack - they immediately assumed six-hours-on, six-hours-off watches under the tutelage of experienced crew, but their father rewarded their diligence with some pretty adult privileges. The girls had a beer at the end of a watch and helped themselves to their father’s supply of snuff.
Under the watchful eyes of both Dad and Mom, the girls mastered the serious business of attaching barges, sometimes to push and other times to pull the awkward loads. They were also entrusted with the responsibility of logging the time of passing navigation markers from the wheelhouse in nighttime fog or blinding sunlight. The adults were stern taskmasters, demanding instant obedience to be ready for the danger of a cumbersome load and an unforgiving sea.
There’s romance in the book, but it’s the love of family and of life afloat.
A similar tale distinguishes Nancy Taylor Robson’s 1985 book Woman in the Wheelhouse, an odyssey of her life on a tugboat captained by her husband. It has more the flavor of a textbook than of a memoir, frankly, but I learned a lot, just in case I ever have to hire out as a deckhand. Her second book, Course of the Waterman, is a novel, and, like her previous memoir, it includes the nuts and bolts of making a living on the water.
In both of Robson’s books, the settings ring with authenticity, but the characters have an aura of too-good-to-be- true, a life romanticized for effect.
On my reaction to a new book of poetry, I have to preface it with a confession. As a rule, I find poetry tiresome, self-indulgent and annoyingly precious. Having admitted that bias, I am delighted to say I was amused and impressed by Catherine Carter’s A Memory of Gills. It’s the classic “slender volume” of poems, some 57 pages in all, and almost none of the poems longer than a single page.
Carter teaches English at Western Carolina University these days, but her poems are full of the flavor of her youth on the upper Choptank River, the smell of brackish marshes, the clarity of Bay water off Bloodsworth Island, and the unmistakable sound of a woman’s voice in vignettes of love, music and flights of whimsey. No bodice ripping, but romance at the joy of being alive and aware.
Blood Kin, by Judith French, is unabashedly billed as “A suspense novel,“ as close to the strict definition as anything Barbara Cartland wrote for a mass audience that made her rich as Croesus. French has the formula down cold - she’s written more than 30 novels. She’s adapted the rules to today’s reality, however. Modern heroines are no longer required to be virgins, but they must resist submitting to the current love interest until the final chapter.
The blood kin of the title is a girl named Bailey (wouldn’t you know?) who meets this adorable guy, a handyman carpenter who used to have an important job in Washington, but now he’s back on Tawes Island, a fictitious scrap of land near the real Deal Island so we know we’re firmly in Bay country. They’re temporary residents in the only boarding house on the island. They meet as he’s headed for the shower, shirt unbuttoned, showing off these incredible pecs and biceps and - honey, you just know the shower isn’t all he’s headed for. Cute girl can’t understand why everybody wants her off the island, and what’s the big secret people hint at but won’t tell?
There are more complications than mosquitoes and plot twists as tangled as a bucket of eels, but we know how it’s going to end, don’t we?
For its niche, it’s adroitly executed. We love it, feeling as guilty as if we’d just eaten a whole box of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
And finally, the regional novel by the master of all female fiction, Helen Chappell, whose gift for satire is only surpassed by her disdain for girly gushing. She’s been known to employ the final chapter clinch, but instead of being in the bodice ripping school, it’s more likely to crackle with wit like a lyric by Comdon & Green.
Her most recent book, A Fright of Ghosts, had me cackling at the prose, the wild inventiveness and over-the-top comedy. Her women characters aren’t exactly noble, but they’re resilient. Her male characters are often endearing rascals, but nothing is serious. Hold the gush. Chappell’s name on the book spine signals a whoopin’ and hollerin’ good time.