Books of the region: witches, war, water

September 08, 1996|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

How did we as a nation ever get into this mess? Why, having seen again and again the harm wrought by drug addiction, did the present generation willfully plunge once again into the morass?

Jill Jonnes doesn't generalize about self-indulgence, self-delusion and self-destruction in "Hep-Cats, Narcs and Pipe Dreams: A History of America's Romance With Illegal Drugs" (Scribner. 510 Pages. $30); but a reader may want to, during this sad, century-long narrative.

Jonnes knows her subject: a history Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins and an earlier book on the South Bronx are among her credentials. Here, she guides newcomers briskly past three U.S. epidemics: 1890 or so cocaine, 1960s heroin, 1980-onward cocaine and crack. The first was mainly middle-class; the second, lower class (plus middle-class psychedelics), and this time it's both.

In one chapter of "Hep-Cats," the city and suburbs of Baltimore typify the way "illegal drugs ... became a widespread and almost mainstream activity, openly celebrated by pop culture." The disintegrating black scene, Capt. Joseph F. Carroll's narcotics squad, an addict average of 178 habit-supporting crimes a year, the Class of 1968 at Milford Mill High - these are painful vignettes.

The current issue of Maryland Historical Magazine prints most of that chapter as its lead article - an unusual step for the Maryland Historical Society's long-established quarterly.

Having told her forgetful audience of past setbacks (Arnold Rothstein in the 1920s, who she finds organized the first supply routes from overseas) and gains (ironically, during World War II drug-dealing nearly ceased), Jonnes moves to the present, and beyond. She forsakes history for public policy. Her final 29 pages are a well-phrased, hard-line call for toughening the public and private stance. She proposes reducing the hard core by requiring treatment programs in cleaned-up jails. Grimly, she forsees reduction of the user population via AIDS.

Jonnes has little to say, however, about the cost of building and operating prisons (addicts now number some 2.5 million, she reports, while the present jail population, for all offenses, is a bit over 1 million); about living conditions that stifle education-career-family ambitions in the urban underclass; or about the despotism necessary, if foreign farmers are to be stopped from growing ever larger coca and opium poppy harvests.

Back to history: When a trend does fade, often it's simply that the public has taken up some other trend. You do better with a fairly clear head, when gambling.

***

At Civil War Vicksburg, the Mississippi River did a striking horseshoe bend. To besiegers, the solution seemed plain: Dig, shortcut the loop, reroute the flow, render Vicksburg high, dry and vincible. Twice, soldiers and slaves (called contraband) plied shovels, only to be denied by too low a river level (1862) and then too high (1863).

David F. Bastian of Annapolis tells this overlooked story well in Grant's Canal: The Union's Attempt to Bypass Vicksburg" (Burd Street Press. 88 pages. Illustrated. Paper. $6.95)

***

The "most crucial participant" in the famous 1692 Salem, Mass., witchcraft trials was a young slave woman named Tituba. She confessed (under torture) to a pact with Satan, and implicated individual colonists. Nineteen people were hanged before the hysteria subsided - and the witness, an Indian from Barbados, recanted.

In "Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem" (New York University Press. 243 pages. Illustrated. $24.95), Elaine G. Breslaw, earlier the historian of Annapolis' colonial Tuesday Club, shows how the witness defensively manipulated her tormentors, including her clergyman master. A fine example of readable scholarship.

***

Three generations of three families, New Deal Democrats at the start and Republicans or burnouts now - Samuel G. Freedman follows them intently in "The Inheritance" (Simon & Schuster. 464 pages. $27.50). One family is Baltimore's crabhouse Obryckis. Its present-day descendants are in New York state, but the original Fells Point household, headed by "a gambler and ward heeler," sits for a stark and gritty picture.

***

Would Anne M. Hays of Annapolis rather be sailing or writing? She does each with a passion. Her latest book, "Through the Spyglass" (American Literary Press. 160 pages. Paper. $14.95) is a collection of 31 cries from the keyboard, in both fiction and nonfiction.

James H. Bready was a reporter, book review editor and editorial writer for The Evening Sun for many years. He now writes a monthly column about books of the region.

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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