“The moon and the tides were full; the summer southwest wind came up the river. It sighed through the pines and rustled in the green marshes. Red-winged blackbirds dipped the reeds. School of small fry, spawned that spring, rumpled the quiet cove, dodged the watchful kingfisher’s eye. The soft crab in his a mossy cell, waiting for the day when its shell would harden to match the water moccasin’s guile. Far out on the point, an old blue heron fished the shallows of the sand bar. Methodically, he plodded to and fro, pausing only when a slumbering minnow came within range of his marlinspike bill. Suddenly he stopped and turned his yellow eyes toward the south. In the distance, a huge white bird hovered close to the water. It was far larger than the great swans which passed his way each spring and fall, for it was a schooner, sailing up the river, wing and wing. The old heron had seen it many times and knew that the great white wings would not harm him. He resumed his fishing.”
Gilbert Byron, The Lord’s Oysters, 1947.
So opens the prologue from Gilbert Byron’s classic Chesapeake story, The Lord’s Oysters. Set in my hometown, Chestertown, and the surrounding rivers, marshes, and forests at the turn of the 19th century, it captures the innocence and the tiny tragedies of coming to age experienced by a young boy, Noah Marlin, and the Twainian cast of characters that surround him: his swaggering yet cowardly cousin Ric, his hard-drinking, hard-fishing waterman Daddy, his half-blind Grandpappy, living in a little ark on a quiet cove, and many others. Sensitively written and deeply connected to an environment that was still totally recognizable, The Lord’s Oysters captivated me as a kid, and I sought out landmarks that Noah described in his day-to-day life.
The Great Marsh.
Lawyer’s Row, where Noah’s Daddy stayed out late gambling and carousing with the sheriff and men of the court.
The school where Noah got thrown out of class for “waggling his fingers” at his teacher.
But unlike a lot of my favorite books from my childhood, this one has aged rather well, in fact, as I’ve gotten older I’ve discovered so much more to love in Byron’s lyrical manner with prose, his understanding of the men who worked the water, and his uncanny ability to make dialogue sound like you just happen to be eavesdropping on real Chesapeake folk:
“Hello, Mother,” the young waterman said, jumping ashore and kissing his wife and son.
“You’ve been drinking, George. I smell it on your breath.”
“I haven’t been drinking, Mother. I saw Captain Pete down the over and he gave me a couple of drinks, but that’s not really drinking.”
“What’s that in the bottom of the boat?”
“I got us a mess of oysters. I sure would like to have my fill of oyster fritters for supper.”
“You know you ain’t supposed to take oysters before September,” she said. “They’ll put the law on you.”
“They ain’t never put the law on a person for taking enough to eat,” he said. “Them’s the Lord’s Oysters, the good Lord put them in the river for folks like us ones.”
As a Chesapeake educator, I can also see so much rich historic documentation in The Lord’s Oysters, too. Before I cracked the spine of my dog-eared copy, I didn’t know that steamboats traversed the rivers of the Bay, and my river too, with great plumes of smoke billowing behind them, or that a man needed to tend the Chester River bridge to open it for masts of passing schooners. I had never heard of a showboat, complete with a full auditorium inside, twangy piano jangling and aging, painted ingenues at the wharf, ready to entertain the town. Chestertown, and the Chesapeake at large, while deceptively timeless in appearance, has nonetheless changed greatly, and none of these former cornerstones of Tidewater life remained in my childhood version of Noah’s stomping grounds. Through The Lord’s Oysters, though, they became familiar to me as history shadows, cast behind the landmarks of modern life to linger in the background, unnoticed unless you turned to look.
Just this week, we had the head of the Gilbert Byron Society speak at CBMM, and after his talk, we chatted a bit about our mutual love for Byron and The Lord’s Oysters. “It’s a shame you never knew Byron,” he commented (Byron died in 1991). “But I do know him,” I said. “I’ve met him in every book he wrote.”
And I do know Gilbert Byron, or at least the things he loved: playing hooky in the hot sun at the end of the school year, high jinks, adventure, his family, and above all, the silent character constantly in the room in every chapter, the wind-swept, green-smelling, thriving brackish habitat of the Chesapeake. While the James Adams showboat doesn’t dock at the wharf anymore, and the last of the big gun’s mighty report echoed in the marsh almost 75 years ago, that is one element where you can still touch a finger, like Alice through the looking glass, with Noah’s world.