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Chronicling the End Times on Tangier Island

Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem looks at life on a beautiful, vanishing Virginia island in Chesapeake Bay.

People everywhere are suddenly paying attention to a place that has since World War II gotten precious little notice from the outside world, beyond day-tripper tourists who are in on the secret. But, like much of the post-election coverage of “Trump country,” a lot of the reportage on Tangier smarts of voyeurism: Media elite dropping in to a “different” place to report on the “unusual” lifestyle and people there. As we putter back across the harbor, Swift and Eskridge mention a piece in The New Yorker about the island that neither is happy with; they feel it just doesn’t do the place justice.

The unique — some might say backward or strange — way of life on Tangier make it a reporter’s dream. Among the things oft-mentioned: There is only one school, no pharmacy, one small grocery store, and only one restaurant open year-round. The island is dry. There’s only a mailboat and a family-run ferry to take you to the mainland, two times a day. Particular attention is paid to the Tangier accent, whose deeply rounded vowels are nearly unintelligible to some, and which some cite as a holdover from 18th century Cornish English. In reality, it’s more a mix of regional dialects made stranger by decades of isolation; Virginians and Marylanders, like myself, have no problem with it and hear familiarities in certain turns of phrase.

Eskridge is a primary vehicle for most of these pieces, the one person every reporter has access to. They talk about the Trump flag over his crab shack, and the twin symbols of a Star of David and a Jesus fish on his boat and tattooed on his arms (to show he’s conservative and religious); about the names of those crab-shack cats, Samuel Alito, Condoleezza Rice, John Roberts, and Ann Coulter (to show he’s really, really conservative); about how he got his name, Ooker (so unusual!). All wonderful details to pad a story, to give the semblance of knowing this person. But it’s all optics, and none of it serves to tell the real story of Eskridge and Tangier.

Swift gets it right because he lived here to capture it.

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