Childhood Despair: The Maryland Way!
Passing a copy of “Dicey’s Song” in the library made me remember the only fact you ever need to know about Maryland: there are no happy stories.
In elementary and middle school my teachers, as teachers across many states must do, tried to pound civic pride in our heads by assigning us work about Maryland. Name the capitol, name the exports; do a report on the Chesapeake Bay. But most importantly read, every semester, without fail, a book about Maryland.
The problem is the most story-worthy feature of Maryland is the Chesapeake Bay and stories about the Chesapeake Bay never end well. The Bay is over fished and Fish and Wildlife underfunded; the Eastern Shore makes its meager living as crabbers on a body of water notable for not really allowing you to crab.
As a result every childhood story you read about Maryland is a story about being poor on the Bay, being unemployed on the Bay, being unable to stop the pollution of the Bay, being abandoned by your family on, near, or sometimes in the Bay. Sometimes everyone loves your twin better than you on the Bay, like in “Jacob I have Loved,” and the only moment of triumph you have is when you move out to marry a poor farmer in the mountains where no one has heard of your family.
Sometimes you are abandoned in a parking lot by your mother and then go live with your screwed-up Grandmother on her shitty farm by the Bay and you have to deal with that psychological fuckery for seven books in a Newbery Honor-Award wining series by Cynthia Voigt (this will also make you realize “The Boxcar Children” fantasy of no adults would actually be horrible, ruining that series as well).
Occasionally you’re in Baltimore, like in “When The Ragman Sings” and your mother dies and you befriend the African-American ragman on your street and learn he’s not such a scary guy, but it’s, you know, the 1920s and everyone’s really racist. Also your father is emotionally distant for the rest of the book.
Point is you’re in Maryland, kids. Get ready for some mental scarring.
Even the few books that could be classified as uplifting Maryland classics have their bitterness. Sure, “Misty Of Chincoteague” is a heartwarming tale about a family raising a plucky foal from the wild horse preserve on Assateague Island. But how does she get there? By the main characters scaring all the horses in a stampede off the island, trapping her mother, and then selling her into eternal servitude. And yes, I include “Misty” as a book about Maryland because, goddammit, Assateague Island is ours, no matter what Virginia says (be satisfied with Chincoteague, Virginia! Your books are all about the FBI anyhow).
And “Chadwick The Crab” is about a crab, which would have been fine, except to make sure we really got home the Maryland dread my teachers followed up readings with lessons about our famous local cuisine — crab cakes.
Why it was important to make sure our reading material was so bleak? Even the Black-Eyed Susan books, which were not about Maryland but required by the state of Maryland to be read, contained nothing but depressing tales of teen pregnancy, drugs, abuse and despair.
Except for the one about the Plesiosaurus who go on a rampage in a Vermont lake, though a lot of people got eaten in that and I still can’t believe 7th graders were required to read it.
At the time I rebelled, searching out things with happy endings, deliberately avoiding connecting the characters and tossing books across the room when a protagonist inevitably disappointed. Now as an adult, living in a world that is awash with many disappointments, petty arguments, and small moments of personal wonder, I think I see what they were trying to do.
Perhaps it’s because they could not put a pretty face on the half of the state that seemed to be declining , or perhaps it’s because of our awareness that things are not that they once were that stoicism pervades Maryland’s literature. A Marylander cannot ignore the contradictions before our eyes: the home of Harriett Tubman and yet also a slave-owning state. The home of “Treasure The Chesapeake” license plates while more and more fish hit the Engendered and Threatened lists. The home of those who work in the Capitol of our country yet ignored in the grand scheme of national thinking.
Perhaps, in hindsight, these books show more moral fortitude than we do now, refusing to sugar coat the fact that life is complicated, especially when you go without. Perhaps.
But the most important thing, I reflect as I put “A Solitary Blue” back on the shelf, is the one source of pride Maryland has instilled in me: no matter what our flaws, no matter what our problems, at least we’re not Delaware.
Because fuck those guys.