The Oysterback saga escapes the op/ed pageSome years ago, a whimsical series of monthly articles began appearing on the opposite-editorial page of the Baltimore Sun. It chronicled the doings of the denizens of Oysterback, Maryland ― “two streets at high tide, three at low.” It wasn’t at all what I, as editor of the page, had in mind.
I had asked a local writer, Helen Chappell, to write about the smell and feel of the distinctive region on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, but I expected real places and people. That was too easy for Helen, who preferred the challenge of making stuff up, while staying true to her turf. She succeeded marvelously. Some have likened Oysterback, Maryland, to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, Minnesota, as a place where we meet ourselves in the guise of funny, astonishing, endearing strangers. A sobersided later editor, appalled by the thought of good reading on an op/ed page, killed the Oysterback newspaper series, but only Helen could kill her children, and she refused. Hence, the first Oysterback novel, “A Whole World of Trouble.” I do not pretend to be an impartial reviewer.
“I should have known that Momma would be late for her own funeral.” That is the book’s first sentence, and a good tip-off that what follows will appeal to the reader looking for entertainment, not enlightenment. Momma, it seems, was always an exasperating character ― or at least Carrie, the narrator, thinks so. Carrie shook the dust of her stultifying, provincial hometown from her feet the first chance she got. Now she lives in a van with no fixed address, driving the back roads to flea markets and yard sales, picking up one man’s junk that can be recycled somewhere down the road as another man’s treasure.
But Carrie knows that there is no escaping her mother’s funeral ― which means a reunion with her prim sister Earlene, who runs the View’n’Chew, a video-rental and sandwich shop. Not much has changed in Oysterback. Pink Bladderweck has been re-elected mayor, even though he has been in a coma for three years. “What if he comes out of it and finds out he’s been defeated. He’ll be so hurt, it might kill his will to live.” Down at Omar Hinton’s store, the retired watermen are gossiping fondly over their dominos about Carrie’s mother. And this just in: the town criminal, Alonzo Deaver ― “He looked like homemade hell” ― has escaped the state pen. Carrie learns that a lot more has been going on in her hometown than she had ever imagined.
A Whole World of Trouble
By Helen Chappell
Simon & Schuster, $23
by Hal Piper