Tidewater Review - November 2009

November Review


Anne Stinson

  Here’s a wonderful, magical memoir, much of it set in Talbot County in the 1930s and ’40s, by a talented writer whose childhood was partly engaged in the search for a secret passage that may or may not have existed as a link in the Underground Railroad – one of the routes to freedom for escaping slaves.

   Secret Passage, by Margot Starr Kernan, was privately printed. 170 pp.
    Money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly beats poverty. That’s the message that threads through this book about an extraordinary family whose fortunes rose and fell during their connection with Hope House, the ruin Margot’s grandfather bought in 1906. He restored the house and his wife, Sandra, designed and planted lavish gardens. The property embraced four separate farms – Hope, Glebe, Wyetown and Pickbourne. The main house was staffed with a cook and a houseman, maids, a coachman/chauffeur, gardeners, a full-time carpenter and farm workers.
    The affluence is established – the happiness remains to be seen. Grandfather was in residence between business trips to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Grandmother Sandra stayed at Hope with their six children. Son Nathan grew to be Margot’s father. Sandra was emphatic that six children were quite enough.
    Grandmother Sandra was hardly the Victorian-era matron. Her birth name was Ida May, too prosaic by far for the ebullient redhead. She renamed herself Sandra to reflect her flamboyant personality. That meant peacocks and ornamental chickens on the lawn, a gold-painted grand piano for her performances at her parties, silk gowns a la Martha Graham, etc.
    Grandfather and his grown boys built a ketch big enough to slip out of the Miles, down the Bay and to the Caribbean, but his business trips grew longer and more frequent. Eventually, the children were off to college and Sandra became a busy hostess to artists, musicians and dancers. As she aged and her children married, her grandchildren were welcomed like royalty.
    Summers with grandmother Sandra at Hope were a child’s dream of indulgence. Margot had her own pony cart, lots of cousins to plot mischief and swim in the creek, or boats to row across the water to Pickbourne, where Aunt Ruth was more fun than anyone in the world.
    Margot’s memoir of this enchanted childhood is enhanced by excerpts of letters and published work by the talented family members. Sandra’s letters, of course, were gushy and dramatic. Those from Uncle Dick, an archaeologist working in the Middle East at the time, were full of his experiences digging in the heat and dust and finding artifacts from past civilizations. He was little Margot’s hero. Aunt Ruth’s portrait of him in his Arabic robes is reproduced in the book.
    Margot’s parents lived in Annapolis in her babyhood, so jaunts to Hope were relatively easy. When her father, Nathan, resigned from teaching at St. John’s College, they moved to Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he taught at Williams College. They bought a summer place, a farm in Vermont, and visits to Talbot County were canceled until just before World War II. Sandra was now a widow – Grandfather’s death came during the great Depression, leaving debts and near-worthless assets. The Starrs’ status went from rich to genteel poverty. Sandra was reduced to taking in paying guests, which she did with her usual verve.
    Margot’s summers at the Vermont farm sound as idyllic as her summers at Hope: freedom to roam, swim and drive her pony cart. Margot met and loved her other set of grandparents. She was able to return to Hope and Pickbourne before the war, and life fell into its old pattern, with rainy days pursuing the hunt for the secret passage.
    Margot has not written the book in precise chronological order, so it’s sometimes confusing for the reader to know how old she was when specific events happened. For anyone anywhere during 1930, the atmosphere and the comic books and radio programs for children ring with total recall. Like her grandmother Sandra, Margot takes liberties with the rules of memoir writing by giving exact quotations to speakers she couldn’t have remembered verbatim. (Sandra played some piano passage loudly to cover her mistakes, mispronounced French words with great confidence and recited poetry with her own “corrections.”)
    Margot’s exceptions to the rules would be damaging in a book meant for public sale, but this one was written to preserve her family lore. Its idiosyncracies are more than compensated for by the vivid and lively picture she has drawn of a unique family during a dramatic time in history.
    Secret Passage deserves an important spot in Baltimore’s Pratt Library and in the Maryland Room at the Talbot County Free Library. The book glistens with all the panache of Sandra’s gold-trimmed dresses and wrists sparkling with jeweled bracelets.
A real dazzling Auntie Mame before Auntie Mame was dreamt of. Viva Sandra!

   The Lie, by O. H. Bennett. Trade Paperback Publishers, 307 pp., $13.95.
   “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!” wrote Sir Walter Scott. If you don’t think that’s true, read this cautionary tale with its apt title. Bennett has concocted a brew of dreadful accident, fratricide, adolescent bad judgment, racism and pride and stirred the baleful mixture into grief, anger and redemption.
    That latter outcome, redemption, is barely a fragile hope, as the young, scared protagonist discovers after total immersion in an entire family’s angst. For a while, that fever of sorrow engulfs a whole town.
    The crisis opens with Lawrence, a black high school senior, found dead on his family’s porch. the only witness is his younger brother Terry, a freshman, who says he was right inside the front door and saw a pickup truck with three scruffy white boys. They circled the block twice and, on the second time around, they shot Lawrence and sped off.
    That’s the story everyone buys. It’s not what really happened. Bennett invites the reader into the sad secret – the brothers were tussling over a gun, an object their parents have forbidden in the house, when it accidentally discharged. Terry is terrified and appalled at what has happened, hence he tells the lie. The consequences are worse than the truth would have been.
    Lawrence was a straight arrow, a track star, a scholar and the pride of the community. His funeral draws rows of classmates and neighbors to console the grieving family. It also evokes furious condemnation of the racial disrespect and hatred that still frightens the black section of town.
    Lawrence had been shy around girls, but felt protective of Tamara, a classmate two years older than he. She dropped out of school for a few years but had returned to get a diploma and apply for college. Homeless after her mother’s death, she had moved in with Beard, a young thug and drug dealer who beat her. Word on the streets had it that Beard was jealous of Lawrence because he had driven Tamara to job interviews. Lawrence had bought the gun for protection.
    Lawrence’s dad copes with his grief by working on an old car that Lawrence was restoring. His mother comes completely undone, sequestering herself in her bedroom, unable to cope with her sorrow. His uncle Cap, his mother’s ne’er-do-well brother, is the only comforting presence for Terry, whose guilt is as heavy as his loss.
    Uncle Cap and his buddies begin to act like vigilantes after tracking down three white trash young men with a white pickup truck. Terry is afraid his uncle and friends will ambush the white boys and maybe wind up in prison.
    Terry’s life is going downhill fast and he’s tempted to kill himself, but he finds an unexpected ally.
    Bennett has written a fierce, bold novel of race relations and family solidarity in post-civil rights America, and the special challenges black families must overcome to rise into the middle class.
    The book also posits a painful dilemma – how difficult is the choice of truth when the consequences are worse than the actual incident? There’s no easy answer, as the book makes clear.
    Bennett has written a fine story that raises as many questions as solutions as it deals with the problem.