Bay pilots, torts, fame, abolitionism Books of the Region

November 01, 1998|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,SUN STAFF

Long ago, before everybody joined organizations, pilots with a knowledge of Chesapeake Bay's sandbars would race each other to the capes, the winner then being hired to guide an arriving oceangoer into port. In form, the pilots' boats were schooners, long, shallow, two-masted. Standard age-of-sail doctrine has the pilot boat evolving into our greyhound of the seas, the Baltimore clipper.

Now Geoffrey M. Footner arises, in "Tidewater Triumph: The Development and Worldwide Success of the Chesapeake Bay Pilot Schooner" (Mystic Seaport Museum, 305 pages, $39.95), to say not so - there being no such animal as our clipper. The true category was pilot schooner, he maintains, from the 1700s on down to the last working example, sunk in 1957. Pride of Baltimore I and II were built to those same proportions.

The ghosts of earlier experts, notably Howard I. Chapelle, will be pitching and tossing. But Footner, impeccably nautical in his background and transatlantic in his research, will convert many landsmen.

Terminology aside, Footner has much to say on Amistad (possibly built in Fells Point), on European nations' pilot schooners, on the U.S. Navy's dislike for them, on oyster pungies (their final name and employment) and on their usefulness (they could outrun law-enforcement pursuers) in the slave and opium trades.

Speaking of mind change, how will lawyers respond to J. H. T. Johnson's book, "Our Liability Predicament: The Practical and Psychological Flaws of the American Tort System" (University Press of America, 230 pages, paper, $29.50)? This clout on the chin of today's damage-suit system comes from a retired surgeon-editor who is also well versed in court procedure and doctrine.

Johnson's clear and sensible proposals for ending the adversary system, which caters to "the greedy and the contentious," are not easily compressed. But liability, malpractice, class action and like judgments, he points out, are becoming so "flagrantly expensive and inequitable" that the uncorrected system may well "fall of its own excesses."

And when lawyers indignantly point a finger at medical care? Dr. Robinson smilingly agrees. "Even doctors," he points out, "are now admitting that some change is necessary."

How many native Marylanders have made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame? Home Run Baker, Ruth, Grove, Foxx, latterly Al Kaline and Judy Johnson, come to mind - but Vic Willis? In "From Maryland to Cooperstown" (Tidewater, 132 pages, $19.95) Lois P. Nicholson of Easton gives much more biographical detail than was published in 1995, on Willis' election.

Born and deceased in Cecil County, he otherwise lived in Delaware. At the last previous turn of a century, pitching for Boston and Pittsburgh, Willis won 249 games.

This is the 14th of Nicholson's cliche-free young-adult baseball books.

Abolitionists, as the Civil War neared, were few (about 1 American in 100, historians estimate) and were reviled - north and south. Then when their dream was made real, credit went to the movement's male leaders; its few prominent women tended also to be feminists.

But any major reversal in public opinion and policy must first have behind it a host of faceless advocates. In "The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Anti-Slavery Movement" (University of North Carolina, 311 pages, paper, $10.95), Julie Roy Jeffrey pulls back from oblivion the everyday civilians who said aloud that, however profitable, slavery is a collective, and individual, sin.

These women did not dispute the times' male dominance. But Mary Clark, Hannah Robie, Mary S. Parker, Sophia Little, Sallie Holley - their antislavery fairs, bazaars and sewing circles raised the money making possible the lectures and periodicals that in turn put pressure on reluctant northern politicians. The surviving minutes, letters and diaries tell an important story.

By and large, these women lived above Mason and Dixon's Line. At today's Goucher College, which is Professor Jeffrey's home base, her book will be hailed - and far on beyond.

To other authors, the field of battle is history's determinant. John Michael Priest of Boonsboro has written or edited 11 Civil War books in nine years. His "Into the Fight: Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg" (White Mane, 278 pages, 25 maps, $34.95) re-enacts that failed Confederate advance unit by unit, almost man by man and minute by minute.

Re-enactment specialists argue the length of the preceding, ineffective artillery barrage, and whether some Southerners retreated. Priest (64 pages of notes) presents new findings.

The hardest hurt, the fiercest sorrow, is inside the man and woman whose child dies first. Albert Camus put it into words: "The death of a child disproves the existence of God."

Jake McCracken and Alexander Semel, Baltimoreans , died at age 5 and age 16, in traffic collisions a decade ago. Their mothers, meeting, still in grief and "readers both," began to find in world literature "the right words" for what they were feeling.

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