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Between The Covers
photo courtesy of Hal Roth
Author Hal Roth at play.

Hal Roth’s Now This is the Truth … & Other Lies
Whether truth or lies, This is the Truth is a fine read; you’ll even learn a bit about life on that land mass we Western shore Marylanders see when we look across the Bay.
Reviewed by Dick Wilson

I review here a book I will partly describe by what it is not. This is the Truth … and other lies is not a history of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, though some stories come from Maryland history. The book is a compendium of 23 tales, essays, biographies and folk lore that Roth, a smooth storyteller with 10 books of local culture to his credit, has gleaned from study and personal experience.

The title story recounts tales that were related to Roth as truth. Some of these snippets are funny; others are outlandish. Yet turning back to what it’s not, this book isn’t just your ordinary homespun, chuckle-evoking, wisdom-laden basket of local lore.

Instead, This is the Truth is a back-and-forth, seemingly random, collection of mostly unrelated stories and facts. Most of the stories involve real people, living and dead, of the Chesapeake Bay area. Occasionally, Roth throws in an account that takes us far from Chesapeake shores. Near or far, Roth knows his subjects well, and he writes in a comfortable, authentic voice that reflects the flavor of the area and the people he’s writing about.

For a modern example, “Yay for Art” is about the very alive Eastern Shore artist Dawn Tarr. Roth draws a fascinating profile of Tarr, who seems determined to fill the world with her art. His descriptions bring her work to life, making you want to see her works first-hand.

Traveling back in time, in “Old News” Roth has mined nuggets of history from old newspaper articles. The odds and ends range from an early lawyer joke, through the state’s long prohibition history, to several articles about little-known oddities. My favorite is the epitaph of a man who died in 1877. Among the extended family left behind was a 101-year-old sister. The sister had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who were (according to the newspaper article) older than the deceased (It’s possible; do the math.).

Those early days seem quaint to us, but the people who lived through them had their own issues, often ones we’re lucky not to have to deal with.

Three articles discuss a miscreant by the name of Patty Cannon. It turns out that Patty was not only a murderess; she was a trafficker in human beings who kidnapped free people and sold them into slavery. Sort of a reverse Underground Railroad, if you will.

“The Witch of Pungo,” on the other hand, likely committed no worse crime than living in a time when independent-minded females could be prosecuted for the capital crime of witchcraft. Roth shows that Salem, Massachusetts was not alone in its pursuit of witches during pre-colonial times. Both Maryland and Virginia, it turns out, did some fairly serious witch prosecuting, although neither state ever went to the draconian extremes of the New England Puritans.

From “The Witch of Pungo,” it’s a short step to the interesting and entertaining “Only Haunted People,” wherein Roth looks into the beliefs and practices of people who insist that ghosts show up in photographs as “orbs.” This has little to do with Maryland lore, but it’s an attention-grabbing story that Roth relates with humorous skepticism.

Roth writes with wit, but not all of the stories in the collection are meant to be funny. “The Last Wild River” is a gripping, well-researched account of a modern battle between environmentalists and a wealthy landowner who challenges preservation laws. This one is a story for our time, of interest to anyone who wants to maintain the little bit of wilderness still remaining.

The final story, “The Legend of Wish Shepherd” is an account of the capture, near-lynching and then legal hanging of Wish Shepherd for a crime he did or did not commit. But hanging the unfortunate Mr. Shepherd did not end the story. He went on to haunt the jail, and apparently he continues haunting to this day.

Whether truth or lies, This is the Truth is a fine read. Sit down and enjoy yourself; you’ll even learn a bit about life on that land mass we Western Shore Marylanders see when we look across the Bay.

Now This Is the Truth: $14.95 Nanticoke Books, Vienna, Md.: 2005: 800-699-9113; www.washingtonbk.com.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.