If you’re not up to taking a 12-mile boat ride from Crisfield, MD, to visit Tangier Island in Accomack County, VA, this winter, you may journey there by sitting on your couch by the fireplace and opening Earl Swift’s new book, “Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island.”
Tangier has received more attention in recent years than you’d expect of a remote island with a population now under 500. The National Geographic, New York Times, New Yorker, Washington Post, Politico, and CNN have all run stories about the disappearing island’s challenges due to erosion and climate change. Swift’s book covers these challenges thoroughly, but it covers much more for those who love the Chesapeake, care about its heritage, treasure the seafood, and respect the whims of time and tide.
Swift, who was a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, now teaching at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, spent a year (2016-17) asking questions, listening, getting to know the local families and traditions, crabbing, attending church, and going to daily afternoon gatherings with crabbers to talk weather, crabs, erosion, or government (in what they call “The Situation Room”).
Swift forms a strong bond with Mayor James Eskridge, who’s been known by islanders as Ooker his entire life. By attending a panel discussion at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation with the author and mayor, I learned that the two men were born on the same day in the same year; both admitted that this was where their similarities ended. Despite their differences, particularly their opinions on climate change, Eskridge and Swift appreciate and respect one another. Perhaps a third of the book is dedicated to Eskridge’s day-to-day life as a peeler crabber with an uncertain future, a burning desire to save his ever-shrinking island, an unwavering faith in God, and a good sense of humor. Readers will get to know quite a few islanders, but the mayor has a starring role.
If you don’t know the difference between a jimmy, sook, or peeler crab or how they are caught and get to market, you will by the time you finish the book. Swifts descriptions of watermen’s lives, the life cycle of the crab, and why Tangier Island is uniquely situated for the crabbing industry are the best I’ve read since “Beautiful Swimmers.”
At 378 pages, “Chesapeake Requiem” is no short story, but the author’s clever weaving together of history, science, folklore, and true stories of people living on an island that’s thrown back in time makes for compelling reading. It’s a beautiful book. ~M.W.
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