Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What I'm Reading

 I like to read books that are set in the places I'm visiting. At the end of this post, you'll find my reading list for the Low Country.  But first, the boat news . . . .

Isle of Hope looks like the movie set for
"small, charming Southern town"
When the Dragonfly stopped at Isle of Hope, the first mate cruised to Savannah to tour the "Ships of the Seas" museum.  The main attraction: A scale model of a very innovative boat--a hybrid vehicle.  The S.S. Savannah was built in the town it was named for in 1818.

Notice that date.  Years before barges started plying the Erie Canal, dragged by mules, Captain Moses Rogers of Connecticut conceived of a powerful hybrid boat, a sailing vessel and steamship combined. The Savannah's claim to fameshe ultimately made the world's first steam-powered transatlantic crossing.

Full disclosure: She covered only part of the distance under steam.  It would be 30 years before another American steamship made the crossing.  But innovation has to start somewhere, and in the case of hybrid boats it started in Savannah.

The next day, at the Isle of Hope Marina, we spotted pictures documenting the work of another local inventor with an unusual vision for boat design.  Captain Matthew Batson built the world's first flying yacht.  (Photo HEREhttps://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/the-flying-house-an-aeroplane-invented-by-capt-arlington-news-photo/3280068#/5th-december-1913-the-flying-house-an-aeroplane-invented-by-capt-picture-id3280068)

This was in 1912, just about a century after the Savannah fired up her boilers . . . and less than a decade after the Wright Brothers made their first, brief flight. Batson's goal will sound familiar: He aimed to fly his airboat across the Atlantic Ocean.  Indeed, he set up shop in the Savannah area, in part, as homage to the pioneering steamship.

Batson ultimately built two "Aero Yachts." The first was irreparably damaging during launch.  A second, smaller airboat did make it off the ground, flying (according to an unnamed eyewitness) for 30 minutes at a height of 15 feet.  Its name, coincidentally, was Dragonfly.

And here's what I'm reading now:

The Water is Wide, by Pat Conroy (1972)

Around the time the Cap'n was deciding to make teaching his lifetime career, he read a memoir that made a big impression:  The Water is Wide,  Pat Conroy's account of a year spent teaching black children in a tiny island school, reachable only by boat and (in the early 1970s) isolated from social change swirling in the outside world.  To say these children had "not been well served by the public school system" is to be extremely polite.  Conroy, fresh out of college and idealistic, bucked the system and broke a lot of rules to do what he thought was right.   

The book was quickly made into a major motion picture starring Jon Voight, and Conroy went on to fame for subsequent novels such as The Prince of Tides and Lords of Discipline.  

Conroy gave the place where he taught a psuedonym, "Yamacraw Island."  In real life, it's called Dafuskie Island, and the day after we left Isle of Hope, we landed there.  Come back tomorrow for a boatload of pictures showing what it's like today. 

Praying for Sheetrock, by Melissa Fay Greene (1991)

Like The Water is Wide, this is a true story, NOT a novel.  I could say it's "the story of how the civil rights movement finally arrived in a rural Georgia county," but that would be like saying Gone With the Wind is "the story of a wealthy white woman during the Civil War."

The cast of characters includes a Robin-Hood-like white sheriff who steals from the rich to help the poor, but with an evil agenda; the imperfect hero, a black man tired of drinking from the "colored only" water fountain; and a brace of brash, bearded, idealistic young lawyers, giving the Constitution a hearty workout.

Justice is served, mostly--but this is a story with a lot of shades of gray, which (I think) makes the story more resonant than most neatly resolved fiction.  The author took notes for 15 years before putting the book together, and you hear the genuine voices of McIntosh County residents as they reflect (sometimes with unintended irony) on revolutionary change in their small town.

We cruised within a few miles of the coastal Georgia town where the events of the book took place, though alas, in a SlowBoat, that was too far for a detour and site visit.  But we could see the tidal marshes and pineywoods that form the background for the events.

History books can be dry; this book is gorgeously written and paced like a thriller. It deserves to be made into a major motion picture.  I owe David Reddy a big THANKS for introducing me to this book.

P.S. Check out photos from Isle of Hope HERE.


  1. Kitty Berger writes:
    Read the Conroy book years ago and was also encouraged in my teaching.

    Cynthia, I've just finished "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating," by Elizabeth Tova Baile. Most interesting. It's a little book filled with a lot to think about. Have you read it? Loved todays blog

  2. That sounds like the perfect book to read on a SLOWBoat!