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Volume 16, Issue 5 - January 31 - February 6, 2008

Terry Noble’s Starting At Sea Level

The story of an Eastern Shore community, a way of life and the place of a boy growing up within it. Read it for Bay lore or just to pass the time. Either way, you will enjoy it.

Reviewed by Dick Wilson

As a boy, Terry Noble was king of a realm without borders, the Manokin Sound area on the lower Bay. This was his small piece of the mighty Chesapeake. He searched estuaries and marshes, in the old-time waterman fashion, in search of crabs, oysters, rockfish and whatever else he could pull out of the Bay. As a man past mid-life, he writes with authority and appeal about what it was like growing up in a small, close-knit community on the Eastern Shore.

That Noble hales from the Eastern Shore was enough to persuade me to open the cover of Starting At Sea Level (Foggy River Books, 2007; 282 pages).

Those Eastern Shore folks have managed, despite some modern inroads, to hold on to a unique culture that’s derived from the Chesapeake Bay and its bounty. When Noble was growing up, the modern-day hassles of city life or suburbia had not yet infringed upon the remote area around the Manokin River. His childhood at first look comes close to the legendary American ideal: a close family in a tight community, far from the city, where everybody knows everyone else.

But life wasn’t all just easy crabbin’. Noble is masterful at revealing the undercurrents below the surface of this idyllic picture. He’s equally good at sketching the larger canvas of Chesapeake Bay, from which the Noble family eked out a living.

History is woven into the fabric of the story in a way that reveals how community attitudes and mores are shaped by the larger world. We see, for example, how the oyster wars between Maryland and Virginia were waged.

The Oyster Wars started small; the crews of large dredge boats stole out of safe havens in Virginia to intimidate small-boat oystermen and force them to give up their catch. Eventually the conflict turned deadly. Around 1870 the state founded an Oyster Navy to enforce Maryland law in Maryland waters. To this day, memories of the Oyster Wars linger in the minds of watermen and their families.

In the 1950s, Noble’s father was a marine policeman who dealt with the same lawlessness — though on a much smaller scale — as his Oyster Navy forbearers. At mid-century, the attitudes of the oystermen echoed those of earlier times. The oysters were there for the taking, and a minor detail like state law wasn’t enough to deter the oyster scrapers. The work of a marine policeman was not easy, nor was he well paid.

The story of Noble’s childhood, with all its foibles and trials, is as interesting as the history that permeates the story. In Noble’s telling, his father played much the same role at home as on the Bay. Father-son conflict is a thread that runs throughout the book, and Noble unsparingly reveals the often-tense relationship. Both father and son is each his own person, neither giving more to the other than is necessary. However, Noble doesn’t try to cover up his own flaws as a boy often headstrong and lacking in judgment.

One of his strengths is this objectivity about himself and the people he describes. Starting At Sea Level is populated by people that Noble knew intimately, and he shows their strengths and faults clearly, as real people with unique personalities. Noble writes with fondness for his characters, and that sentiment infects the reader as well.

The narrative in Starting At Sea Level unfolds gradually, much like a good novel. Noble evokes fine details from the larger picture, so you see both the particulars of a waterman’s existence and the minutiae of everyday life in the community. In the process, he embeds the adventures, misadventures and circumstances of his boyhood.

But Starting At Sea Level isn’t just about Terry Noble and his father. It’s the story of a community, a way of life and the place of a boy growing up within it. With its plentiful authentic detail, polished by excellent writing, you can read it for its Bay lore or just to pass the time. Either way, you will enjoy it.

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