Horses, Terrapins, jazz, place names


Hunt country, up there in Worthington and nearby valleys, acreages, manor houses, woods, streams, fences, horses, dogs, foxes, pinks (the gentleman's scarlet coat, worn in hunts and at balls) and money -- hunt country isn't normally thought of as home to authors. But Meg Waite Clayton, now of California, earlier spent four years there. Her photographer's eye and her writer's eye and ear were recording all the while; the result is The Language of Light (St. Martin's, 324 pages, $24.95), Clayton's first novel. Elsewhere in Maryland, it will be received as the most perceptive look at that area yet.

The central figure, Nelly Grace, has two school-age sons and, after an icy-road car wreck, no husband. A surgeon starting a Johns Hopkins career, he had just brought them East to live in a hunt-country farmhouse. Now Nelly's father arrives -- a big-name photojournalist whose wife has died. Father and daughter soon attach, respectively, to the doughty mistress of the local hunt, Emma, and her handsome son Dac (his first three initials).

In Clayton's picture, families have been in the area for generations; socializing is patterned and gossipy -- still uncovering dalliances and deaths in peace and war long past. At her first timber race, Nelly watches as a novice rider is thrown, killed and hauled away; the race, of course, goes right on. Not how you play the game, she is reminded; the winning is what matters.

Nelly, accepted by the muck-out-the-barn set, is nonetheless in a bind. How to range the horizon on assignment, yet be home for her sons? In his own career decades, Dad just took off. Even now, he is indifferent to her camera skill. How, also, to fit in Dac's harsh past? This is not reading matter for your sheltered maiden aunt, not when Nelly Grace, the outsider, comes to behave with the same flintiness that she has been finding in the locals. Yet The Language of Light shines on, a wonderfully knowing action photograph that has emerged from the darkroom as words.

At the University of Maryland, Dave Ungrady played soccer and captained the track team. Now that he is a sports writer and broadcaster, his collection of campuses has grown. But his loyalty to College Park endures -- witness his new book, Tales From the Maryland Terrapins (Sports Publishing, 200 pages, $19.95).

Ungrady's yarns come from other people and previous print, as well as personal experience. They are loosely organized and unindexed. But what a roll call of male and female coaches and competitors, from 1888 baseball to pre-World War I football (with its occasional five- and six-year players) to 2003's panoply of sports. OK, sometimes Maryland Agricultural College (retitled Maryland State College, and now U. of M.) has lost. But, along the way, what huge and satisfying victories over Navy and Johns Hopkins, Duke and Virginia and North Carolina.

Nathan Miller and the Jazz Age were but slightly acquainted -- he was born in 1927. But later on he read that 1931 classic, Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday. Admiring its style but struck by its gaps, he set his mind on someday filling out the story. Now Miller's New World Coming (Scribner, 433 pages, $30) is piling up laudatory reviews that concur -- flappers, cars, talkies, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Ederle, Babe Ruth, embezzling, racketeering and Dow-Jones plunges weren't a one-time-only phenomenon. The 1920s, "to an astonishing degree ... were a precursor to modern excesses."

Miller was born, schooled and married (to Jeanette Martick) here. During 15 years at The Sun he reported from its Annapolis, Washington and Latin American bureaus. He left in 1969, to move 40 miles closer to the Library of Congress, and to research and write books of history (naval warfare) and biography (the Roosevelts).

A different audience responded to Miller's The Founding Finaglers: A History of Corruption in the United States and Star-Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents. Two weeks after sending his publisher this latest manuscript, its flow smooth and accessible as ever, Nate Miller was immobilized by a series of strokes. Today, in a nursing home, attended by family and friends, he casts an occasional pleased glance toward a copy of his 18th book.

Frederica Mathewes-Green of Linthicum and National Public Radio is a good person to explain icons, being herself a convert to Orthodox Christianity. In her small book The Open Door (Paraclete, 144 pages, $16.95), she sketches an imaginary church interior, with iconostasis, a wooden screen in front of the altar area. On it, she places four icons, one being, appropriate for the season ahead, the c. 1132 Virgin of Vladimir, with infant.

Many people, she notes, say that icons, found also in museums, lack emotion and are hard to relate to. For her part, "Western religious paintings," tend to be "accomplished and beautiful, but noisy." Whereas icons "touch a completely different interior level, something below the hectic arena of thought and emotion."

The heyday of Berkley -- a Harford County crossroads hard by Conowingo Dam -- may have been back in 1928, when the dam (with U.S. 1 atop it) began generating electricity; unless the heyday occurred in 1818 with construction of the original covered toll bridge across the Susquehanna, its 10 wooden sections on stone piers; or unless in 1781. Lafayette slept here then, in 2003's Rigbie House. Headed for Yorktown, his soldiers were deserting. The young marquis addressed them, and hanged a local profiteer, and all was well.

But what a great day last July, when Berkley was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Rural Maryland has its share of place names, though many of them paled when in the 1920s the government took away their postal cancellation marks.

Many are out of sight from today's superhighways. Berkley is near Castleton, Dublin, Glen Cove, Bald Friar, Job's Hole; next door, larger, is Darlington.

But which of them or those beyond can point to a self-study that matches A Journey Through Berkley, Maryland, by Constance R. Beims and Christine P. Tolbert (Gateway, 175 pages, $25)? Either a new standard is in effect for books on local history, or Berkley is indeed specular. Hail to Indian petroglyphs (now under water), the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal (1839-1894), Swallowfield on the Underground Railroad, Hosanna School, Church and Cemetery.

Remember Berkley for its Quakers, its peaceful interracial coexistence, its Joshua Smith Memorial Watering Trough. Beims and Tolbert, the authors, interviewed old inhabitants, probed documents, even listed questions still unanswered. All this, and not there on Maryland's official highway map?

James H. Bready writes a monthly column on regional books. Previously he worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor for The Evening Sun.

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