I First Met the Bay in a Book
by Helena Mann-Melnitchenko
I first saw Chesapeake Bay through a novelist’s eyes. James Michener’s Chesapeake captured the magnificence and the history of the Bay, starting with the 16th century, when the Susquehonnock, Pentaquod, navigated the great water in his canoe. Just recently, I reread the novel with new eyes.
The Bay I see before me is not the one Pentaquod navigated, for over time it has been sadly diminished through pollution and over-harvesting of its great natural resources.
Since we settled here five years ago, I have watched the Bay through its gentle, turbulent and destructive moods and listened to its voice, sometimes whispering, sometimes roaring. When Hurricane Isabel slammed into our shores, I understood how well James Michener captured the fury of the Bay.
Michener (1907-1997) started writing in his 40s and put out a huge body of work. His first book, Tales of South Pacific, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1948; it was later made into a Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical. Chesapeake was published when the author was in his early 70s.
He takes the reader through the centuries, relating the Bay’s history through generations who lived and worked the Chesapeake. Through 17 voyages, he captures the evolution of Maryland from the peaceful Nanticote Indians; the first settlers, the aristocratic Steeds; the crafty hunters and fishermen Turlocks; and the Quaker shipbuilding Paxmores.
Thoroughly, Michener covered all the bases of Maryland’s history: the role tobacco played in Maryland’s economy, the unchecked plundering of the Bay’s shores by pirates, the conflicts between blacks and whites and the importance of the Bay Bridge. He ends his story in 1978, the year his book was published, with the Bay much changed and his Devon Island, a character in the story, swallowed by a powerful hurricane.
Michener had a great sense of place, love of nature and knowledge of history. I have also read his Hawaii, Texas and Poland, all places where I have lived. None has made such an impression on me as Chesapeake.
I read the novel for the first time while vacationing with my family on New Jersey’s Mullica River, before I had seen the Bay. When not canoeing, we spent our time on the porch of our cabin at water’s edge. This was the perfect place for catching up on reading, and Chesapeake was the perfect book. Enthralled, I dove into it, as my daughters dove into the cedar-stained water.
On the way home to Washington, we took a detour to see this great Bay. Crossing the Bay Bridge, we marveled at how wide the Bay was even at its narrow point, how the sailboats danced on the dark water where the sun broke into a million diamonds.
We explored both shores of the Bay, the creeks on the Eastern Shore and the cliffs on the Western. My daughters were also influenced by James Michener, and both are interested in the environment. Valerie is an environmental lawyer; Kathy lives directly across the Bay, as the heron flies, on a quiet creek where she nurtures baby oysters.
On long summer days and evenings, there is nothing better than to be immersed in Chesapeake. It’s still in print and sold at local bookstores. My treasured copy is held together with tape; the black cover with an oval insert of Canada geese dog-eared, the 1,083 pages yellowed. This is the original paperback edition that introduced me to the great waters.
Again, I flip through the pages of the novel that captured the soul of the Chesapeake.
Writer and fisherwoman Helena Mann-Melnitchenko last appeared in Bay Weekly as editor of husband Eugene’s memoir “As the War Ended,” (Vol. xiii, No. 20: May 19).