Tidewater Review - February 2013


reviewed by

Anne Stinson

Deadrise by Robert Blake Whitehill. Telemachus Press. 337 pp. $9.99.

Local writers seem totally unable to ignore the old axioms of every level of writing, from third grade’s “write a story about what you did on summer vacation” to Composition 101 for freshmen in college: “Write what you know about.”
Robert Whitehill, a resident of Chestertown, has set this mystery in Smith and Tangier Islands, plus little uninhabited islets in that string of marshy hummocks fighting erosion in the Chesapeake Bay. He knows the isolated places well ~ he’s lived on them off and on.
Whitehill is obviously familiar with the livelihood of his fictional character, Ben Blackshaw, who is a waterman like nearly every man who inhabits Smith and Tangier.
When the story begins, it’s winter ~ oyster season. For a waterman on the Eastern Shore, that means options for harvesting the catch. He can dredge the shallow bottom of a river with hand tongs, like giant wooden scissors that he can close if and when he feels oysters (or just as often rocks) below. He may not find oysters when he hand-over-hands the heavy tongs out of the water, but he’ll definitely grow admirable biceps. Less primitive, but more expensive, he can use the power of patent tongs on his boat, machine muscles for bottom scraping and lifting. Or he could sail over the oyster “rocks” while dredging from an almost obsolete skipjack.
Our hero, Ben, chose a different technique. Ben dives to the bottom to forage for oysters by hand, assisted by a scuba outfit and a trusted friend topside to keep an eye on things so he doesn’t run out of oxygen and stay below permanently. A wetsuit to protect him from the bitter cold and a bucket for his catch, and he’s in business.
Ben is pretty much a loner. His parents left Smith Island 15 years earlier under something of a cloud. When Ben finished high school in Crisfield, 12 miles across bumpy water from the island, he came back to follow the water briefly and then joined the Army, winding up in Vietnam.
Now ~ while Ben is breathing bubbles to the surface, chicanery is brewing in the Nation’s Capital. A sly and loathsome woman, Senator Lily Morgan, has been in office for years. Her long tenure gives her access to all sorts of illicit deals. Her partner in crime is also a clever political operator, her staff member named Chalk. His latest assignment is to retrieve a package he has already lost. He’s not in a happy mood.
Ben soon learns that his missing daddy might be in on some kind of a deal when he dives to one last rock at the end of a long cold day under water. On the river bottom he sees his father hanging from the gear of his boat. Ben recognizes the boat’s name before he sees his long lost parent. One eye is missing from the old man’s face ~ the crabs have already begun their supper.
Ben makes a quick check of the boat solidly resting in muddy, sandy water below the corpse. It’s heavily loaded. The cargo is 20 boxes packed with bars of gold.
The crooks aren’t exactly stupid. Chalk figures that Dick Blackshaw, his mule hired to bring back Lily’s price for arranging a shipment of arms to a country that’s definitely not an American ally, is probably related to Ben Blackshaw, and Ben is likely on Smith Island. No good is going to come of this connection.
Somebody is bound to get hurt, and it’s Ben’s sweetheart, LuAnna. She’s been kidnapped and held hostage to lure Ben in (who must be in on the caper with his dad, they assume).
Chalk will force Ben to give up the key to open the remaining 19 boxes of gold. In the meantime, Chalk’s thugs phone the senders of the payoff for the numbers that will spring the locks. Nobody has a note pad to write the numbers on, so they use a magic marker to write them on LuAnna’s bare hiney. They then slice off the marked skin for reference. That makes Ben really, really mad!
The chase begins. All the watermen band together to help Ben rescue LuAnna.
Whitehill has a flippant kind of humor. He writes, “Slaughter, slaughter everywhere and not a stop to think!”
He also has a grand time showing off his knowledge of watermen’s lore. The rescuers know every gut and ambling waterway in the maze of marshes and bring out of hiding a flotilla of vessels from waterfowl market-hunting days. They use old fowling pieces, sneak boats, pump guns, sink boxes and ammo from the past, buckets of nails, screws, nuts and bolts.
The reader will never guess who turns up at the climax! Daddy Dick, hale and hardy, wearing a fine glass eye to mask the crab’s ravage. He’s come back to bring the gold and thumb his nose at the (other) crooks and regain his honor with the island boys.
Maybe in the heat of all the excitement I missed some explanations for the action. I could have sworn daddy Dick was drowned for good when Ben found him, but here he comes, bigger than life and better yet, wearing the key to open the boxes. Although how he managed not only to rise from the dead, but also get the glass-eye maker to put the secret numbers right on the glass cornea, still baffles this reader. Pop it out, turn the handle, get the gold. Pretty slick, right?
Anyhow, the book has a happy ending. LuAnna has one helluva scar on her butt, but Ben doesn’t care. He marries her anyway.
Whitehill must have had loads of fun writing the book. His descriptions of the charm and other-worldly life on the islands ring absolutely true and beguiling. All that water and all that sky! Sassy jargon on the tongues of weathered men and women, sophisticated dialogue where it’s unexpected. The whole package is a triumph of a wild and wet romp. Enjoy!

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.