Anne Stinson - July 2007
Herons Poynte, a novel of the Chesapeake, by G.M.O. Callaghan. Cashell & Kells Publishing Company, Annapolis. 473 pp., $16.95
Here’s a wonderful new book by an Annapolis author who’s an avid sailor and environmentalist, award-winning documentary and commercial filmmaker. His myriad passions are combined in this gripping story that includes the tragedy of Native American exploitation by the Eastern Shore’s earliest settlers and scoundrels, the Naval Academy and its Honor Code, government graft and pollution of our beloved Chesapeake Bay.
That’s a lot to swallow in a single novel, and it’s no wonder it took 473 pages to bring justice to the miscreants and vengeance to the main character, a young Choptank Indian boy growing up in the arid panhandle of Oklahoma on a barren, poverty-stricken reservation. Except for a brief background of his life there, David Waterfield (not his Indian name, but a poor attempt by a registrar of births’ attempt to spell his name phonetically from his native tongue) is off to the Naval Academy, thanks to a beloved teacher in his one-room school.
The tale of his struggle to head for the East Coast is prefaced by a wicked account of his tribe’s loss of their traditional grounds to the first cavalier to take possession of the region. Thanks to a letter from Lord Baltimore, the recipient was entitled to as much land as he could cover with his inked thumb. The wastrel, so overjoyed by a noble title and the largess, celebrated with so much ale that most of his thumb covered the open water of the Bay, except for a small tract at the mouth of the Patapsco River and a chunk of land occupied by the Choptank tribe.
Back to the modern era, with David ensconced at the Academy where his prowess at lacrosse made him an immediate sensation, we begin the fun of locating the precise location of his stolen real estate. Herons Poynte, we soon discover, is the site of Sparrows Point and the Bethlehem Steel Corporation still owned by the fictitious eighth generation following the scoundrel Cecilius Blackburn. Their great trickery has enabled them to amass huge wealth, first through tobacco and later through the busy steel mills.
David is on the trail of his goal, to bring down the people who have robbed him and what’s left of his tribe’s heritage.
His rapacious foes are greedy, but powerful. It isn’t long before they’re on to the stalking of this upstart Middie and lay traps at every turn to thwart David.
At Thanksgiving in David’s plebe year, he uses his short leave to take a bus to Baltimore to eye the Sparrow’s Point layout and meets a new ally in his search for chicanery. The lovely Liz is working in the mill’s office and deplores the blatant disregard by the owners who ignore regulations set by the Clean Air and Water Act. Both of her parents, now deceased, were victims of her father’s work in the blast furnaces and her mother’s cancer from airborne emissions. No pension from her father’s years of labor and no health benefits for her mother’s final illness have left her with no money, but a passion for justice as profound as David’s. She’s pursuing a night school law degree in environmental law to even the score.
In the meantime, David hires an out-of-work waterman to take him across the Bay to scope out the mansion and lands surreptitiously on a remote part of the grounds, unaware that a gala entertainment is under way. He bluffs his way into the great hall while merrymakers eat and drink at a tent on the lawn. He discovers the enormous painting that depicts the fraudulent treaty whereby the tribe was cheated of its land.
He’s unaware that Liz’s job includes arranging parties at the Blackburns’ mansion in Talbot County - here’s one intriguing puzzle for the reader trying to pinpoint its location. Not until late in the book do we make an educated guess. Because David and Liz flee detection at the great soiree, the young couple retreats over a bridge that looks as if it crosses Knapp’s Narrows. Aha! The mansion must be on Black Walnut Point below Tilghman Island.
Well, maybe and maybe not. This is fiction, remember.
Back in Baltimore, it’s clear that they have been spied on and a trio of goons off CEO Blackburn’s lavish yacht waylays them and beats David within an inch of his life. Only Liz’s friends in the blast furnace, old buddies of her father, storm out of the mill and save his life.
A long hospitalization keeps him out of the Academy for several months, but his homework is personally delivered by the Superintendent, who admires the young man for his scholarship as well as his athletic promise.
Liz realizes that her cover as a mole is blown at the plant, but the CEO’s son is enamored of her and wants her to be where he can press his plans for seduction. Her law school professor, an expert in environmental law, is so affronted by the attack on David that he agrees to help Liz bring a class action suit. Better yet, his cooperation is pro bono.
The plot thickens. Blackburn is paranoid that his empire is threatened and his son arranges for a college classmate to pilfer David’s room in Bancroft Hall to find evidence of David’s prying. The miscreant has access to the Academy grounds in his Marine uniform. He has a desk job, but he’s also the junior Blackburn’s drug supplier. After trashing the room and not finding David’s hiding place that holds the original deed, he plans another foray. What he does find, though, is the lacrosse stick that David’s grandfather carved before he died. He reduces it to kindling wood.
At last David finishes his plebe year and begins the first summer cruise in a new submarine, the first off the line from the big contract. He uses its first port of call at Naples to meet Liz’s Italian aunt, who drives him to Rome and the Vatican, where the original copy of the treaty was stored by the Jesuit who brokered the deal of the land grant. The Jesuit also filed a translation of the Choptank language in which David’s parchment copy was written and saved for 350 years. With a copy of the document and an affidavit of its authenticity, David tries to return to Naples for his submarine’s departure. Alas, Rome’s maddening traffic at rush hour makes him late. The sub has left. David is AWOL.
He is arrested and flown back to Annapolis, where he faces dismissal from the Academy and the rest of the summer in the brig.
Awaiting trial that will almost surely end his naval career, he learns that the sub has broken apart in the Mediterranean and his best friend is lost with the entire crew. The faulty steel is the culprit. In the meantime, on probation, he is allowed to return to his fall classes.
Like Nancy Drew, Liz has filched the specs for the steel deal and turns them over to her professor-mentor to add to the suit against the company. The CEO, now livid, fires her on the spot.
Both young people are now in jeopardy, and the drug dealer pulls another vile trick. He hides bags of Ecstasy in the hollow handle of David’s replacement lacrosse stick, turns in an anonymous charge and the contraband is discovered in David’s closet in Bancroft Hall. In addition, the search uncovers the box from David’s grandfather. Inside it was the old man’s ancient pipe with dregs of ceremonial peyote residue. A second illicit drug charge is added. A court martial date is set, but the verdict is a foregone conclusion.
I won’t divulge the clever plotting that unfolds this tale of the fight for justice, but the Blackburns get their comeuppance at a terrible price from David.
Callaghan has fused a taut plot, dead-on dialogue and just enough Native American mysticism to establish the contrast between cultures. He has crafted a story line that gallops to a satisfactory resolution.
The book, just out in May, is for sale at the News Center and Harrison Street Books in Easton, The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels and at Mysery Loves Company in Oxford. Selected gift shops will be carrying it as well.