Michener's 'Chesapeake'

October 18, 1997|By SUN STAFF

Tom Wisner has taught James Michener, but has never quoted him much in his work, preferring the poems of watermen for his classes, songs and stories about the Chesapeake Bay.

But he was saddened yesterday to learn of the death of Michener, whose 1978 book "Chesapeake" was among the most popular of the late author's many epic novels.

"What stays with me is the scope" of Michener's work, says Wisner, of Mechanicsville. "It was amazing, the way he could come in, take in this region and tell its stories."

But even more amazing, he says, is how Michener, whatever one thought of his ability as a novelist, was able to touch the lives of the people of the Chesapeake, with whom he lived and worked while putting the book together.

"My students were not scholars, just folks, mainly," Wisner says. "But he made them aware of how their own lives were so intimately threaded into this place. It was remarkable."

Also clear, he says, was Michener's appreciation for the bay, something that can be glimpsed in a passage from the opening chapter of "Chesapeake," in which the novel's first hero, Pentaquod, a Susquehannock Indian, first enters the bay in 1583:

"The Chesapeake! The name was familiar to all children, for on this great water strange things occurred. This was the magical place where the waters became even wider than those of the Susquehanna, where storms of enormous magnitude churned up waves of frightening power. This was the river of rivers, where the fish wore precious shells.

Pentaquod leaned forward with his paddle across his knees, content to allow his yellow canoe to drift quietly into the bay, and with each length that the log moved forward, he saw some new revelation: the immensity of this water, the way the fish jumped as if they were eager to be caught and tasted, the constant movement of birds back and forth, the majestic trees lining the shore, and over all, the arching sky more blue than any he had seen before.

"... 'Oh, what a universe!' he cried when his joy was greatest. To express this thought he used a Susquehannock word meaning: all that is seen on earth and unseen in the heavens, and he never doubted that this word had been invented so that a man like him could describe this new world which he had been allowed to enter."

Excerpted from "Chesapeake," by James A. Michener, Random House 1978, with permission from Random House.

Pub Date: 10/18/97

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