The subtitle A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island explains a lot and brings up more questions that are entertainingly answered by Earl Swift. The island is in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay and has been a curiosity for years. We visited for an afternoon more than 25 years ago with other tourists taking the ferry from the Eastern Shore. Tangier is so small people bike or drive golf carts and I recall being happy to see that teenagers could hotrod in boats. The population was at its highest about a century ago (1,300 people) and now is under 500. The island itself is being overwhelmed by the rising water of the bay (or erosion, as the islanders have it); the present day shoreline is dramatically reduced from that of 1850 and is diminishing at an increasing rate.
Earl Swift focuses on the looming demise of the island and at the same time introduces us to this unique, almost cult-like world of the watermen. He is accepted by them and is clearly fond of them. They speak with an unusual accent (“point” is “pint”) and have maintained relatively few family surnames for over two centuries. They risk their own lives with no hesitation to save another waterman in trouble. No alcohol can be legally purchased on the island. The powerful among them have kept modern views away from the island: in 1998 the maker of a Paul Newman movie who wanted to use footage shot on the island for a tidy sum was rejected because one character undressed another, the characters drank wine and beer, and Paul Newman’s character used PG-13 language.
Currently the watermen harvest blue crab, so popular all over the East Coast for soft shell crabs and crab cakes. The catch has been diminishing, as the practices of the watermen focus on short term success, as is the case in so many human endeavors. A previous boom for the island was oystering which began when the New England oystermen came south in 1840, having exhausted their own oyster banks. Oystering in the area flourished by the 1860s and peaked in the mid-1880s.
During the War of 1812, the British fleet invaded the island and from there attacked Washington and burned the White House and the Capitol. Tangier itself was treated well, thanks to the negotiations of a Tangier resident named Joshua Thomas. Mr. Thomas advised the British that an invasion of Baltimore would not go well and was proven correct. This British loss was made memorable by Francis Scott Key’s poem we know as”The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Among the island oddities is that the mailboat is not operated by the US postal service, as one might expect, but is a family business. It was begun around the turn of the twentieth century by a descendent of the aforementioned Joshua Thomas and now is run by Rudy Thomas, born in 1956. They contract with the postal service and UPS for the mail and freight as well as taking passengers between Crisfield, Maryland and the island.
Both my brother and I wrote about Earl Swift’s book Auto Biography, here and here. In both these non-fiction books, the author puts himself into the picture so that you see his role while the subjects themselves maintain center stage. He joins in island life whole-heartedly and with good humor. He tells about attending a wedding in the school cafeteria/auditorium:
The room’s edges are draped in a gauzy white fabric, through which white Christmas lights blink. A banquet table offers appetizers: tortilla chips and cheese sauce, a chocolate fountain and little cubes of pound cake, a veggie tray. I ladle myself a glass of nonalcoholic punch, the only liquid on hand. Everyday life can be challenging on a dry island, I reflect, but it’s an entirely more rigorous test to get through a dry wedding.
With punch cup in hand, he made friends with a woman whose stories will stay with you. He is an amiable person and a fine storyteller.
Earl Swift, Chesapeake Requiem, Dey St. (William Morrow imprint), 2018, 434 pages. Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.