Spirit, a search, oddments and ouijas

Books Of The Region

May 02, 1999|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Tenth Ward runs, roughly, from Maryland Penitentiary to Green Mount Cemetery, from Jones Falls to Greenmount Avenue. It was fairly homogeneous, in the late 1940s -- working-class whites in rental rowhousing: Irish, Italians, wartime's leftover hillfolk. Many were school dropouts. "I never really knew we were poor," one kid said, even though his younger brother slept in a dresser drawer.

A bridge spanning Jones Falls and the railroad tracks alongside provides the title for, and sometimes the setting in, "The Biddle Street Bridge," by Jack Lundon as told to Fred L. Miller (Slingshot Press, 192 pages, $13.95 softbound). Even in publishing's autobiography age, this one's a lulu.

Police records, should they exist, might verify some of these break-ins, scams, pigeon cookouts, assaults and minor riots; but in general the reader is dependent on say-so. Yet as Mike Campio, Hughy Footley, Warren Grimm, Larry Barely, Bigo, Garbage Pants, Tony Meatball, Hymie Glick, Stevie Fazzio and the Solon brothers leer or slug their way along Preston Street, or plunder one more freight storage building, the detail has a solid ring to it.

Locally, the misbehavior model is usually the "Happy Days" of a West Baltimore boyhood. But H. L. Mencken never sold old newspapers disguised as current ones, went joyriding in an apartment building's elevators, slid 26 guys in through a movie theater's fire door, started fights aboard the Bay Belle or held down any number of beginner jobs, briefly.

Humor, animal spirits and revolt against authority go a long way here. In time, however, the endless fistfights cease to entertain. Some of the gang are plainly headed for the Fallsway Apartments, known also as the Pen. Realistic dialogue, true, is an improvement upon Mencken, who in print eschews the soiled word. Yet Lundon and Miller do express misgivings. "Strong Language," the cover advises; "Not recommended for youths under 17 years of age." In this age of the come-on, let us, severally, sigh.

Ann H. Hughes went off to Europe, one college summer, and came back pregnant. Her parents, proper bourgeois, hit the roof; but calmed down and took her to a home for unwed mothers. The baby (a girl) was then put up for adoption by an unknown couple.

Years later Hughes, a Baltimore publishing house editor, with a husband and two daughters, emerged from that "wilderness of guilt and secrecy." Rules or no rules, she resolved to trace, and meet, her first child. She narrates this quest in "Soul Connection: Memoir of a Birthmother's Healing Journey" (Otter Bay Books, 264 pages, $14.95, softbound).

Tales of this sort are heard nowadays; more often an adopted child seeks biological parents. "Soul Connection" is about people of intelligence and by a good writer, whose strengths include vivid recall and powerful emotion. Astrology, which gives Hughes comfort, will be lost on many; the DNA testing is incontrovertible. Recurrent pain, from refusals, false leads, dead ends, is offset by a growing sense of climax. The finale, in Quebec city's underground rail depot, is most moving.

Family graveyards fade away. Like general stores and one-room schoolhouses, they have lost out to bigness. Yet the lonely cluster of tilted and overgrown headstones still has its occasional champion, notably Helen Chappell, author of "The Chesapeake Book of the Dead: Tombstones, Epitaphs, Histories, Reflections and Oddments of the Region" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 137 pages, $24.95).

Chappell's previous books have sprung from the imagination (Oysterback tales, detective novels) and from the Shore. At her small, unlisted cemeteries, on both sides of the Bay, neglect, creepiness and pathos prevail. Starke Jett V's sensitive photographs show carved lambs, angels, flowers -- and real skulls.

This is a sampling, not a survey. Chappell scouts around for the picturesque. She interviews neighbors, old and young; she threads through cities of the dead, as well as villages -- Westminster (Poe), Green Mount (A. S. Abell), St. Paul's (John Eager Howard).

By now, some diseases are held in check, but congenital defective grammaritis, it seems, is eternal. From an 1838 Tangier Island gravestone: "Think, husband, of our happy days / When in the grave my body lays . . . ."

There are two universes -- the obstructed one, round about us, and the unobstructed one. Communication between them occurs during a near-death experience, and can serve useful purposes. This is New Age doctrine, set forth by Roman France in his novel, "The Celestial Connection" (Tale Spin Press, 190 pages, $16.95 softbound).

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