Freedmen, watermen, wetland

Books Of The Region

September 26, 1999|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

In 1865, people in the North set out to help educate the many former slaves. In Connecticut, the Hartford Freedmen's Aid Society sent Rebecca Primus, 29, to Royal Oak, in Talbot County, Maryland. This bright young African-American teacher went home after four years, the sponsors having disbanded -- but not before building a schoolhouse. Grateful townspeople named her frame building the Primus Institute.

Starting before the Civil War, Primus had been friends with Addie Brown, a housemaid (she worked a while at Miss Porter's School in Farmington). They corresponded. Letters by Primus and Brown have now been published, as "Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends," Farah Jasmine Griffin, editor (Knopf, 320 pages. $26).

Amid their many chatty words, the letters are revealing. The Secesh live on hatred. Andrew Johnson, as president, isn't much. Baltimore's a big place. The freedmen (young and old, day and evening) grapple with reading, writing, numbers, geography. Later on, Addie and Rebecca took husbands. But in these letters, racism, politics, finance, all else pales alongside their devotion to each other.

When the editor, Griffin, went to Royal Oak, the schoolhouse was still there.

The Eastern Shore's oystering and crabbing attract authors aplenty, among whom so far folklorists, naturalists and photographers have outshone fiction writers. That balance now shifts. "The Waterman," by Tim Junkin of Potomac (Algonquin, 312 pages, $22.95), is a candidate for best novel of the year on any aspect of Maryland.

The central figure, Clayton Wakeman, has dropped out of college in Baltimore, in 1972, after the drowning of his imperfect father (but a good waterman). Clay's inheritance is a workboat, worn but dependable. A trip out on the water, and his mind locks on the hard, adventurous life of tongs and crabpots.

Complications come aboard: his best girl lives with someone else, his boat partner drinks and up the Bay storms Agnes. Then everybody's in western-shore Virginia, where the local watermen double in big-money crime. The culminating, dark-of-night boat chase up the Bay calls out for Harrison Ford or Pierce Brosnan.

Junkin's youth was spent on the Shore; he is brilliant at land- and waterscapes (nettles, but no mosquitoes?). His pace is compelling. You won't want to stop for meals, even.

Some know Maryland as a grid of interstates, streets and parking spots. Others know Maryland's hills, woods, marshes, animals, birds, trees, flowers. No in-between about William S. Sipple of Millersville: while working for state and then federal environment agencies, he has led more than 1,500 field trips, or "tramps," on both sides of Chesapeake Bay.

Moreover, after squishing the water out of his shoes and pants, he kept a journal -- the basis for "Days Afield: Exploring Wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay Region" (Gateway, 558 pages, $19.95 softbound).

Nature study, Sipple-style, is in all-out earnest. His book's two indexes (plants, animals) are alphabetic -- by Latin name. He is a scientist ("allelopathy," "evapotranspiration"), not a prose stylist. Describing individual potholes (acre-sized depressions), bogs and fens on either shore, he doesn't give road directions. But his harkback to Charles C. Plitt and the Baltimore Botany Club, taking the train to "the wilds of Anne Arundel" a century ago, is ambrosial.

Someone who can't tell a swamp pink from a clustered bluet from a northern pitcher plant (rarities all) may be entranced just by the names: slender fimbry, long-beaked baldrush, warty panic grass, sweet-scented lady's tresses, horned bladderwort, reticulated nutrush, smooth beggarticks, hairy duck potato, Walter's paspalum. And if you haven't been to Zekiah Swamp, you ain't seen nuthin'.

The pygmy chimpanzee called the Bonobo, Philip Macht merrily versifies in "Photozoo" (Maryland Zoological Society, 64 pages, $12.95) may be "our most related./ They're fun to watch, but what you see/ is bound to lead you to agree/ they're the most X-rated." Roger C. Birkel has made glorious accompanying portrait photos of wild creatures, and proceeds from the book will go to the Baltimore Zoo.

Teaching and writing, Stephen Vicchio has built a following for philosophical reflection, moral essays, self-interviews, short fiction -- "Pieces of an Examined Life" (Woodholme, 208 pages, $14.95 softbound) is his 15th book. As in the past, many of these short takes have already seen periodical publication.

The past few years, Vicchio notes, have included his own divorce, an injury to his brother, life with small children. He is moved by it all, yet stays on course: here an aphorism, there an allusion to a classical author; thoughts on lacrosse, Jonathan Swift's old age, walks in the city, Eros.

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