REVIEW: “Chesapeake Requiem” is a lesson in compassion and community

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I usually read young adult fiction, but I decided to pick up the nonfiction book “Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island” by Earl Swift for my latest read.

Tangier Island, Virginia is located in the Chesapeake Bay. Tangier is a community built off of the back of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab. Tangier is also disappearing.

Swift offers a compelling portrait of Tangier’s citizens as they watch rising sea levels and erosion remove surface area from their island.

I chose to pick up this book because it was far too easy for me to see connections to Kansas. Sure, western Kansas isn’t disappearing into the ocean, but aquifer depletion is a problem that’s acting in the same manner. Environmental factors are threatening a way of life.

Swift explores those factors in great detail, looking at historical maps of the island and scientific studies to explain just what is happening and how it affects the island. The scientific information alone is reason to read this book, especially as Tangier is on the front line of what other coastal communities are or will experience.

This book isn’t just a science-dump. Swift brings in the science over the course of the whole book, and he weaves it together with history and rich narratives. From the mapping of the island in 1608, to the foundation of its Christian establishment—Swift offers a well-grounded ethnography.

The information on crabbing that Swift shares from his time spent on crabbing boats fascinated me. Swift breaks down the jargon of crabbing in a descriptive way that even I, a person who has never eaten a crab, felt comfortable in understanding.

This book also drew me back to the 1981 Newbery Medal winning book, “Jacob Have I Loved” by Katherine Paterson. Paterson’s novel is about Sara Louise Bradshaw who lives on the fictional Chesapeake Bay island of Rass. I read the book for a class last year and was delighted by the context this novel provided to Paterson’s work.

Back to the connections to Kansas, all but two Kansas counties were won by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The citizens of Tangier also overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.

However, Swift takes the approach of humanizing the citizens of Tangier rather than alienating them like many do with Trump supporters when discussing their political affiliations. The reasons they voted for Trump make sense given the bureaucratic process which kept any concrete moves from being made to save Tangier.

I appreciated Swift’s take on 2016 presidential election because most of the people in the community that raised me voted for Trump. Though I don’t agree with their political position, I understand why rural Kansans voted the way they did, and I don’t think they need to be continually dehumanized.

Treating these political differences with respect and understanding is a lesson we can all learn from. Sure, arguing politics can be fun (I do it with my parents often), but at the end of the day partisan polarization isn’t going to fix anything. Compassion will go a long way.

Swift’s compassion is the preeminent factor in this book that led to me enjoying it. Tangier is a close-knit community, with a population of approximately 700 people that’s basically a given.

Swift comes in as an outsider and writes about this community with such compassion. His narrative is compelling as he introduces readers to various citizens of the island and the island way of life with a degree of unexpected closeness.

This is not to say that Swift’s writing doesn’t fall flat at some points, because it does.

He spends a significant amount of time explaining the island’s unique accent, which is important information to have. However, this quickly becomes pedantic. Swift’s constant explanation of the island accent disappears as the book progresses, but he could have placed less focus on it from the beginning.

Furthermore, Swift goes on about the fly problem on the island a lot. As he shares his personal experiences on the island, I got fed up with descriptions of flies. I got the point early on; there are a lot of flies on Tangier. I didn’t need Swift’s consistent reinforcement of that.

These bumps in the road were minor, and I felt like I knew the citizens of Tangier by the end of this book. I recognized the sense of community in them in the same way I recognize the sense of community in my own hometown.

Through “Chesapeake Requiem,” lessons of history and science brought me to an understanding that this community is special in the way every community is. Tangier is a place worth saving because of its humanity, not in spite of it.

Macy Davis is the assistant culture editor and a senior in English. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

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I'm Macy Davis a former Collegian culture editor and a 2019 graduate in English. When I was not reading and writing (both for class and for fun), I was also a member of the nationally ranked K-State speech team.