Books of the region: war, fossils, slaves

March 23, 1997|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Whose order was it, for the third platoon of Company C to attack? Just before first light, in October 1944 in eastern France, who sent those young GIs up a slope against Germans known to be dug in, well-armed and waiting? An infantry attack, on foot, with no air strike, no tanks, not even an artillery barrage? While the operation planners (the book gives names) waited, safely in the rear, as enemy machine guns, mortars, grenades and finally snipers methodically slaughtered the Americans?

This awkward question comes from Robert Kotlowitz, one of three survivors, in his memoir, "Before Their Time" (Knopf, 195 pages, $22). Kotlowitz wondered about it then, as he lay there unmoving, a whole day, before rescue; and afterward, when military histories pussyfooted. By now, he expects no answer, what with only a minority of World War II's combatants still alive. Kotlowitz, from Baltimore's Garrison Boulevard (his father was cantor at Beth Tfiloh), Johns Hopkins and Peabody Conservatory, is thankful to have lived.

He and his wife, Billie, moved to New York, and he has had a career in public television. Baltimore scenes light up his four novels. But "Before Their Time," vivid, powerful, is his best book yet.

As one whose GI time oddly paralleled Kotlowitz's, minus the combat, minus the danger, may I say: yeah, that's how it was.

***

What daily life was like in prehistory, paleoanthropologists deduce from excavated tools and bone. Writers such as Jean Auel reconstruct it, too, adding plot and character (dialogue is risky; better, for the Rift Valley, modulated sounds).

Joan Dahr Lambert of Guilford gives the genre a new lift in her novel, "Circles of Stone" (Pocket Books, 406 pages, $23). Using three separated time-and-place frames - the Africa of homo habilis, the Red Sea of homo erectus, the Pyrenees of homo sapiens - Lambert projects three heroines, each named Zena, and a theme of female leadership. The three stories also have in common the spiritual presence of a Mother Goddess.

Lambert (at work on a sequel) will have a great many readers.

***

At last, spring! One sure sign thereof is, a new novel out from Barbara Mertz of Frederick -"The Dancing Floor" (HarperCollins, 326 pages, $23). Under which pseudonym, Barbara Michaels or Elizabeth Peters? It was the former's turn.

We are off to a country house in Lancashire. An American wants to see its ancient garden. Butsting in through a thorn labyrinth, she runs into strange owners, witchcraft and more. And the suspense builds . . .

***

By the 1850s, Baltimore was home to more freed slaves than any other city in the Union. Later generations boast of this, even though slave pens, bounty hunters and rent-a-slave agents openly flourished here.

But life wasn't that rosy, as T. Stephen Whitman makes clear in his penetrating study, "The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland" (University of Kentucky Press, 232 pages, $35.95). Whitman, a Mount St. Mary's College faculty member, dug deep into the records: he finds owners promising eventual freedom as a way to persuade slaves not to escape but to work harder. The person finally freed was simply replaced by a younger, stronger slave.

When the amended Constitution shut off that supply of cheap artisans and laborers, racism remained. Baltimore businessmen largely ignored freedmen, instead hiring low-pay immigrants as they poured in from Europe. Whitman's findings are an addition to historical record.

***

Baltimore's high point in world history may have gone by 183 years ago, with repulse of the only all-out ground-and-water assault upon it so far. "The Star-Spangled Banner," and all that. Smith, Armistead, Stricker; Cockburn, Cochrane, Ross. Fort McHenry and North Point. Baltimoreans take their War of 1812 seriously, especially as preserved in the works of William M. Marine, Neil H. Swanson, Francis F. Beirne, Walter Lord. And Francis S. Key.

Sobering, therefore, to be reminded that "The War of 1812 gets little attention in American History"; that "the major actions of the war occurred along the Canadian border." Who says this? Joseph A. Whitehorne, a retired Army historian and, unlike the above, no Marylander.

What Whitehorne offers now in his book, "The Battle for Baltimore, 1814" (Nautical & Aviation Publishing, 262 pages, $29.95), are insight, detachment, command of sources and close detail. (Ancestor-seekers will rejoice in a bibliography telling which documents are in which archive, but fume at a skimpy index). "Battle," which also covers the two preceding years of Chesapeake-action buildup, uncovers no startling new theory or fact. Simply, credibly, here is what led up to the battle for Baltimore, and here is what then happened.

James H. Bready writes a monthly book column for The Sun. He previously worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor for the Evening Sun.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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