'Wished For Country' -- fine old Maryland

August 18, 2002|By Jacques Kelly | By Jacques Kelly,Sun Staff

The Wished For Country, a novel by Wayne Karlin. Curbstone Press. 340 pages. $16.95 paperback.

The English-born 17th-century Jesuit, the Rev. Andrew White, provided the title of this ingenious, creative tale of the savory social stew that was the infant Maryland colony, where Native Americans, Africans and English settlers mixed alongside the broad Potomac's oyster beds.

The author of this historical novel, a professor at the College of Southern Maryland, has placed real characters amid those of his inventing. Each chapter is devoted to its own voice -- an African slave, an indentured servant-carpenter from Kent in England, or a Piscataway nation Indian who spent time in England and is now back in America.

The characters enable the author to tell a story with "voices that for so long have been left out of the American narrative." Also appearing are well-known figures in Maryland history: Leonard Calvert, who led the English colonists to St. Clement's Island; his rival William Claiborne; landowner and political insider Margaret Brent; and Father White, possessed of a probing conscience and masterful insights.

Author Karlin uses the bloody conflicts over the sale and control of beaver pelts to pit one Native American nation against another, much helped along by European traders who wanted a share of the fur coat trade for customers back on The Strand. Curiously, tobacco is not the demon here, it is "that furred rodent."

This is a serious-minded novel without a boatload of humor; the author does earn smiles with his description of foppish, tail-coated and be-laced squires set against the dressed-for-reality buckskinned Piscataways with their comfortable moccasins.

There are also beautifully evocative passages devoted to the Wesorts, a group well-known to this day in Southern Maryland, yet a mystery to the rest of the state. The locally coined term, which derives from "we sort of people" describes the racially mixed descendents of Native Americans, blacks and whites.

Threading through the entwined lives of the author's characters is his lush and delicious description of the Southern Maryland landscape, set at the seasons of the year. His lyrical passages about the rivers -- and especially the trees -- of Maryland in that period contain some of the book's most memorable and compelling prose: "We came out of the swamp and followed a skein of creeks to the Potomac, silver veins through a green country."

The author's evocative descriptions of 1638 living conditions -- the foods, the long houses, the early villages -- combine the tools of the writer and the archaeologist.

There is a sense the author is a naturalist at heart, that he spends his afternoons canoeing or walking throughout St. Mary's and Calvert counties. He clearly loves some of the most majestic spots in Maryland and is fascinated by their genealogy.

In novelistic terms, the book delivers. It is a worthy conceit -- using separate voices to enunciate ever-current issues of birth, race, gender, class, greed, education, along with a healthy genuflection to environment and geography. After all, what became of those stunning, 200-foot trees the English settlers write home about? And the abundant seafood in the clean waters?

A lifelong Baltimore resident, Jacques Kelly writes a weekly column for The Sun about local traditions, people, neighborhoods and landmarks. He is author of several books about the city and area including Anne Arundel County: A Pictorial History, Peabody Heights to Charles Village and Bygone Baltimore.

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