Tidewater Review May 2006

Having My Say: Conversations with Chesapeake Bay Waterman Wylie “Gator” Abbott, by A. M. Foley. Elliott Island, Maryland: Dogwood Ridge Books. Illustrated. 242 pages. Paperback. $18.95. ISBN 10:0-9672947-2-X
      Here’s the most interesting life story of an Eastern Shore waterman I’ve ever read. It’s the story of an exemplary proud, independent and hardy waterman and world-champion muskrat skinner, Wylie Marvin “Gator” Abbott, of Elliott Island, which is “Down Below” in Dorchester County.
      He died last year at age 65 after successfully harvesting crabs and oysters, working as a duck and goose hunting guide, operating a seafood business and serving in the Maryland National Guard. He worked mostly in the Fishing Bay area of the Chesapeake but briefly in the Gulf of Mexico where alligators (‘gators) flourish in nearby swamps. Having My Say indicates Gator Abbott was also a “life-of-the-party” fellow who married twice and drank good-naturedly.
      The title page of Having My Say lists A. (for Ann) M. Foley as the author, and there’s no reason to doubt that she wrote it. She’s a previously published professional writer who moved to the Eastern Shore from Cabin John (Montgomery County) and has lived on Elliott Island since 1977. She has co-authored three books about the area – one with Freddie T. Waller, Elliott Island: The Land That Time Forgot – and two with Gloria Johnson – Cambridge and Dorchester County.
      An odd thing about Having My Say, though, is that the text makes it appear as though Gator Abbott himself wrote it as his autobiography. The language is waterman’s English – e.g., like referring to the county capital as “over to Cambridge,” and like “neither” meaning “none.”
      I don’t think I’ve ever before seen non-fictional autobiography written as if by the subject but attributed to another person. In an Author’s Note at the beginning of this book Ann Foley says she “had the good luck to listen to his [Abbott’s] adventures for 20-odd years, more often than not in Nora Foxwell’s [general] store” over to Elliott Island. “[T]his book is the result,” she says, “his story assembled and retold as faithfully as I can get it on paper.” It certainly looks authentic.
      Abbott’s “say” includes complaining that the National Guard called him away from civilian work too often, and paid him too little ($1 a day) to support his family. So he quit after eight years of service, including anti-looter patrol over to Ocean City after a hurricane and anti-demonstrator action over to Cambridge when Rap Brown was there. Abbott also resented government interference with dumping tomato-canning waste into the Chesapeake and government regulation of the size of rock, oysters and crabs fished out of it.

A Dream Across Time, by Annie Rogers. St. Michaels, Maryland: Bivens and Jensen Publishing. 342 pages. Paperback. $15.95. ISBN 0-9770183-0-X
      Annie Rogers is the pen name of Roger and Mala (Mr. and Mrs.) Burt, who live, alternately, in St. Michaels, Maryland, and St. Lucia, the independent commonwealth and Caribbean island that was formerly, and also alternately, a British and French colony.
      According to their publisher, their new Annie Rogers novel, A Dream Across Time, is the first in a planned series. Since almost from the beginning of the story most of the female characters are described as very beautiful, but not quite beyond description, some of the principal men (notably the hero) are variations of handsome aristocrats, and some supporting roles are played by wise and loyal servants, one might assume this yarn is a “bodice ripper” – you know, like some of the best-seller novels by another resident Maryland writer, the late F. VanWyck Mason.
      But no; only one woman, a comely aristocrat, gets her bodice ripped in A Dream Across Time. In the prologue, she has fled the French Revolution to St. Lucia in 1789. On that island in 1793, though, a wise and loyal slave rips her bodice and smears her with the blood of a murdered woman to prevent her being killed by mean and disloyal and rebellious slaves of African extraction.
      Which is not to say there is no erotic action in A Dream Across Time. The time switches from the 18th century to 1980 on St. Lucia. The heroine from New York is married to a stupid project engineer who drinks too much and beats her. She’s injured in an automobile accident but comforted by the hero who is engaged to another woman of whom his aristocratic St. Lucian mother does not approve.
      Other characters include a woman from Baltimore who is only fairly beautiful but calls people “hon” a lot. Others are a young woman from France who cheats with the heroine’s rotten husband, and a black couple – the husband chauffeurs the whites around St. Lucia; the wife senses the hero and heroine are meant for each other.
      And so on: “Anne Rogers” writes at least as well as VanWyck Mason and is better at description than he was. The Burts, according to their publicity, can discuss, among other subjects, “books in which the Caribbean is the main character,” and that, I believe, accurately describes A Dream Across Time. Descriptions of St. Lucia’s geography, flora, fauna, architecture, dress styles, food, drink and furniture abound. And they’re interesting, but they also tend to slow up the romantic action too much, I think. Still, this is a good piece of slightly too-long fiction.

Best of the South: From the Second Decade of New Stories from the South. Selected and Introduced by Anne Tyler. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: A Shannon Ravenel Book/Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 344 pages. Paperback. $15.95. ISBN-10: 1-56512-470-7
      You can bet your former plantation mansion on an Eastern Shore creek that some of the best short fiction in English is in this collection. Why is it the best? Because Anne Tyler, the big-time novelist now living in Baltimore, read bags of the “best” short stories from the annual collections, 1996-2005, of Best of the Year short stories from the South and selected two per year for those in this new volume as best of the decade.
      The series was founded and edited a decade earlier by Shannon Ravenel, of North Carolina. Tyler, the best-selling novelist who lives in Baltimore, also helped select “best” stories that were republished during the first decade.
      Why do we believe that all of these winning short stories are “Southern”? Because all but four of the 20 authors in this latest collection were born or raised or associated with institutions in states that were once part of the Confederacy. Two of those were born or raised or associated with Kentucky, which, like Maryland, didn’t secede.
      And why do we believe their stories are any good? Because they were first published by magazines like the New Yorker, the Paris Review, the Atlantic Monthly, the Iowa Review and similar publications with demanding editors. Then they were selected as “best of the year” stories for publication in one of the annual New Stories from the South books. And then they were selected by Anne Tyler for The Best of the Second Decade book at hand.
      You may never have heard of most of the authors of these stories, but believe me, friends, they are some of the most talented fiction writers in the business. As Tyler notes, their stories feature fine narrative style, a strong sense of place and passage of time and guilt about Southern racial prejudice. “But I don’t mean to suggest,” she adds, “that Southern literature has to relate to the old days, good or bad.”
      No, it doesn’t have to, but very often it does.

Four Little Old Men: A (Mostly) True Tale from a Small Cajun Town, by Burton P. Brodt. Illustrated by Luc Melanson. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 28 pages. $14.95. ISBN 1-4027-2006-8
      This new and unusual little story is printed on 28 pages that measure 10.25 x 11.25 inches and devote more space to big, rather kitschy, full-color cartoon illustrations, than they devote to text. So, at first glance it appears to be a book for children. But it is not so described on the copyright page – only as “fiction,” and the publisher recommends no age parameters for its readers.
      Which is why I think it’s unusual. Stories written to amuse children usually do amuse many children. But occasionally they do not, to put it politely, convulse the adults who are expected to read them to children. Personally I found Four Little Old Men acceptably droll, if not hilarious. But I think it will probably entertain readers in my age parameter (0 to 86) more than it will tickle your average juvenile (0 to 45).
      Anyhow: These four Louisiana Cajun men are too old to do anything but play bouree, a Cajun card game that includes a lot of yelling. To avoid offending anyone, these old men (only one is physically small in the illustrations) eventually move a card table and chairs under a tree at “the bottom of the ... levee” near their little home town that’s “nestled against the Mississippi River.” Later, in order to yell and play bouree without getting soaked in the rain or cold in the winter, they build a little shack on the site.
      Then ... but that’s all I’ll tell of the plot – which, keep in mind, is “mostly true.” Katrina and the other hurricanes that wrecked New Orleans and other Louisiana towns on or near the Mississippi are not mentioned. As I say: an unusual story – partly, I guess, for what it omits.