Bones, the West, the state, baseball

Books Of The Region

April 18, 1999|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Sun Staff

Most people today expect their remains to be grouped, in graveyards or columbariums, but also at separate, marked sites; not so, in American Indian times. Local custom called for two stages: shallow burial (or exposure), until the skeleton alone remained, and then communal burial among the disconnected bones of other persons. The word is ossuary.

Over the decades, in Maryland, some three dozen Indian bonepits have turned up, and been carbon-dated at roughly 1400 to 1700 A.D. Mostly in tidewater areas, they contained as few as three persons, as many as 600. Anthropologists and archeologists prize ossuaries for their additions to today's meager knowledge of Algonkian Indian thought and culture.

Dennis C. Curry of Crownsville has now brought together the where and the what in "Feast of the Dead: Aboriginal Ossuaries in Maryland" (Archeological Society of Maryland and Maryland Historical Trust, 108 pages, $15, paperbound). Curry, a ranking state archeology official, is also the editor of Maryland Archeology magazine.

"Feast of the Dead" is sometimes technical and sometimes unpretty: many an Indian had contracted syphilis; in court records, white settlers are shown to have been stealing grave goods as far back as 1686. But there is much to ponder in this different view of life here, and of life in the hereafter -- as expanded upon, Curry notes, in detailed 17th century observations made north of here, of the comparable Huron Indians.

In his new novel, "Bone Music" (Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $23), Lee Moler of Bel Air sets himself an interesting task: to chart an Old West and a New West and, with the latter for his timeframe, interweave the two. The plot concerns an epidemic virus, Chinese gangsters, drugs, a factory, Vietnam veterans and business tycoons, but the setting is familiar old Big-Sky Montana, with cattle, saloons, target-for-tonight women and lots and lots of weapons.

Moler, the author of 1991's "Baltimore Blues," is a novelist of promise. He has an ear for speech, and his characters are capable of occasional reflective observation. Here, his scenes (61 chapters) start and end with the crackle of today's action movies. Eventually, one wonders: out West, across that vast and formidable landscape, was (and is) the pervading spirit nothing more than testosterone?

The more Maryland changes, the more it's not the same. And the sooner a reference book about Maryland becomes out of date. The original WPA Writers Project's "Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State," was published by Oxford in 1940 -- a good and useful work. Demand for revisions resulted in "Maryland: A New Guide to the Old Line State" from Johns Hopkins. More demand, more revisions: after only 23 years this time, a whole new book is out, under the familiar title. Someone studying growth and change could reasonably want to own all three versions.

Guide I (543 pages, 40-plus authors) has a series of interpretive essays (which have stood up well). Guide II (465 pages, four bylines, "glove-compartment" size") presents 45 tours, with seven city introductions. Guide III (again Johns Hopkins University Press, 650 pages, $45; $22.50 paperbound) boils it down to 19 tours, with old photos in sepia, modern ones in black and white.

It is by Earl Arnett, a former Sun writer, who drove the length of the tours, making sure the sights have neither vanished nor moved; Robert J. Brugger, historian, author, editor; and (also a co-author in 1976) Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist.

There are guidebooks and guidebooks. This one is comprehensive (one newcomer listing is the National Security Agency), noncommercial and candid (you should also have along "a recent official Maryland highway map").

Old picture postcards are a great collector category: fixed limits, easy storage and preservation, occasional attic discoveries, rising values. Bert Smith of the University of Baltimore earlier created an old/new album, "Greetings From Baltimore"; now his attention turns to our summer vacation scenes, in "Down the Ocean: Postcards From Maryland and Delaware Beaches" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 86 pages, $29.95).

The span is from about 1905 to 1950, the journey (known to many as "downey ocean") starts in Baltimore, and the cards range north to Rehoboth Beach, Del. Some of the handwritten, address-side messages are shown, from that era of the cent-and-a-half postage stamp.

Smith, himself a graphic designer, uses blowups to make the cards look better than the originals. His Baltimore book left some dissatisfaction -- there are simply too many surviving city scenes for single-volume reproduction. But "Down the Ocean," with its knowledgeable captions, includes one old-time hotel after another, along with reminiscent boardwalk, beach and boating.

A 1918 card showing somebody's private railroad parlor car, parked alone among the pines of Rehoboth Beach, has got to be one of the all-time great U.S. postcards.

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