Tales laugh with, not at Shore

Monday Book Review

September 12, 1994|By Lawrence Freeny

THE OYSTERBACK TALES. By Helen Chappell. Johns Hopkins University Press. 115 pages. $19.95.

THE ADVENTURES among citizens of mythical Oysterback, Md., recounted by Helen Chappell, blend cartoon-like exaggerations with depictions of laughs, losses and triumphs. These characters resemble cousins once removed from real life.

Desiree Grinch, proprietor of the Blue Crab Tavern, is a lively observer of the townspeople's doings. Her comments on men's conduct -- she's been married four times -- range from wryness to resignation.

But Desiree is speechless when oysterman Hudson Swann, after a long silence, blurts out: "When you're on God's cutting board, are you box [dead shells, debris] or are you cull [live, marketable oysters]?" Professor Shepherd, having overheard, answers: "You're always cull, Huddie!"

Desiree and her ex-husband Earl Don Grinch make a date to see a movie "over to the new mall" in Salisbury; predictably, he chose an action film "with Bruce Swartzenwillis or whatever, the one with muscles." Still, she was "right touched" when he sang "Heartbreak Hotel" to her, prompting her suggestion to head home to their favorite parking spot, perhaps to rekindle the magic.

There is magic in these tales, engendered by Ms. Chappell's deft contrasts of the "old" Eastern Shore, before the Chesapeake Bay Bridges arcs, with the "new," semi-homogenized Shore of the 1990s.

Consider this classified item from the Bugeye, Oysterback's weekly newspaper:

"LOST: In the vicinity of Black Dog Road and Razor Strap Landing: pearl and gold-plate ankle bracelet as seen on HSN on Saturday night after the Elks Dance. May have fallen out of black Trans-Am. Name plate says Tawnee. Call 555-1919. If a man answers hang up."

Some Shoremen dislike the Oysterback essays, complaining to their godfather, the editor of The Sun's Opinion-Commentary page where they first appeared. I've heard the same objection, that Ms. Chappell is "making fun" of them, from an old friend on the Lower Shore. But many others -- there and elsewhere -- enjoy each episode.

The author, a native of Cambridge who lives near Easton, is a good listener and observer. Many of the down-home witticisms and jargon have an authentic flavor and, since Oysterback has a harbor as shown in Ms. Chappell's not-to-scale sketch, the dialogue could be related to Tilghman Island. Still, I know a captain whose skipjack is docked at Wenona, who talks pretty much the same way; so do some friends in Cambridge and Crisfield -- when they want to.

Among characters in "Oysterback Tales" not previously mentioned are: Miss Nettie Leery, famed for her oyster fritters, but also a homey philosopher, in contrast to Desiree's role as the interlocutor; Ferrus T. Buckett, supposedly the oldest working waterman at 92, who's less reclusive than he seems; and the unnamed charmer known as the Prince of Tilghman Island.

Some readers may wonder whether these characters have real-life counterparts, but such speculation is bound to be a useless exercise: The author has written several novels, her creation of believable characters is a practiced skill.

Ms. Chappell is a natural storyteller who loves the Eastern Shore and is neither making fun of its residents nor disparaging the towns named Easton, Salisbury, Ocean City, etc.

Ms. Chappell is also an optimist, for the stories are replete with love and hope.

Lawrence Freeny writes from Towson.

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