Tilghman's Retreat Being there: Author's fictionalized look at life on an old family farm brings sights, smells and wonder of the Eastern Shore to the page.

April 10, 1996|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This was always his home, even if Christopher Tilghman mostly lived elsewhere. He passed many summers as a youth here on this sprawling family farm with its magnificent views of the Chester River and its history nearly as old as the state of Maryland. He teaches his three boys to revel in its thousand acres.

It's a wonderful place for a kid, and on this warm, late-winter day, with an explosion of buds promising spring and dark clouds suggesting an afternoon storm coming off the Chesapeake Bay, the three Tilghman boys -- ages 12, 10 and 3 -- are busy exploring. They've cheerfully endured the nine-hour drive from Boston to Queen Anne's County just to go down to the creek and count the ducks, geese and occasional red fox.

Christopher Tilghman remembers that feeling well from his own childhood. "It was kind of a liberation and a joy and a relief for me," he says fondly, watching the boys race off to a pasture of cows. "I had a sense that this was the place for me."

For Mr. Tilghman, there was no better way to show his love for the place than to write about it. Three of the short stories in his masterful 1990 collection were situated on the Eastern Shore, including the brooding title story, "In a Father's Place." Not since John Barth's novels introduced the literary world to the Shore in the 1950s had a writer invoked this setting so well in major fiction.

This week Random House will publish Mr. Tilghman's long-awaited first novel as he continues his literary reworking, re-imagining of the Eastern Shore. Titled "Mason's Retreat," the book tells the story of a family that takes over a crumbling Shore farm in the mid-1930s. Already, "Mason's Retreat" is winning the same kind of acclaim as "In a Father's Place." Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, said that the novel "places him securely in the ranks of our most accomplished writers." The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley calls it "a quiet, but powerful book" that manages to fulfill all the expectations raised by "In a Father's Place."

No one is more aware of the high expectations for "Mason's Retreat" than its author.

"Of course I'm nervous as hell about how it will be received," Mr. Tilghman acknowledges in the farm- kitchen, as he prepares lunch for the boys. "I got a huge amount of attention for 'In a Father's Place.' But that was six years ago, so this novel is kind of like starting over."

He speaks with the accent of a New Englander, which makes sense for someone who grew up in Boston, graduated from Yale in 1968 and then took up residence in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. But his real roots always lay south, in the fertile land of the Eastern Shore.

The Tilghmans trace their farm's beginning to 1645, when Richard Tilghman, an English surgeon, fled to the Colonies to escape the wrath of Oliver Cromwell. Tilghman was a friend of Lord Baltimore, who granted him land on the Chester River. The Tilghmans were especially prominent during the Revolutionary War. The Eastern Shore was a hotbed of Tory sympathizers, but Matthew Tilghman helped draft the Maryland constitution and Tench Tilghman brought the news of Corwallis' surrender at Yorktown to the Congress of Philadelphia in 1781. (Mr. Tilghman's family, though, is not related to the Tilghmans after whom Tilghman Island is named).

Until a few years ago, this was a dairy farm. Now the Tilghmans lease out land for the farming of soybeans, wheat and corn. "The arrangement we have now has a little less soul in it," laments Mr. Tilghman, who helps manage the farm along with one of his brothers.

Mr. Tilghman, 49, is tall and ruddy-featured. He's spent a lot of time outdoors, including working as a hay hand out West as a young man. He also sails, an avocation that he works into his fiction as well. He is both used to the comfortable life and a man of the soil, one who can talk farming practices and contemporary poetry with equal ease.

He sees things with amused detachment. When one of the older boys is asked what he likes about the family farm, the youth answers with a sweep of his arm, "All this land." Christopher Tilghman chuckles. "We're feeling very aristocratic today, I see," he says dryly.

Another time, he is asked if having one of the Eastern Shore's most prominent last names has been a burden. He answers with a shake of his head and a grin: "The great thing about coming back here is that they know how to spell my name. In the rest of the world, if they know how to spell it, they don't know how to pronounce it." Anyway, he adds, "Nobody else on the Shore gives a damn about Revolutionary War heroes."

Painstaking approach

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