Somerset A Microcosm of American Racial Attitudes

The Literary Hill

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In 1975, John R. Wennersten was teaching history at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore when he was asked by the local Bicentennial Committee to write a history of Somerset County. His account, which included descriptions of the lynchings that took place there, was never published. What the committee desired, he writes, was not the reality of this complex region, but “a replica of ‘Gone With the Wind.’”

Now, in his new book, “Strange Fruit: Racism and Community Life in the Chesapeake, 1850 to the Present,” Wennersten has free rein—and Tara is nowhere to be seen. Tracing the long, fraught history of this area on the Delmarva peninsula, he positions Somerset County as a microcosm reflecting the racial attitudes of the country as a whole. Eschewing the “moonlight and magnolias sentimentality” that early plantation owners often deployed to defend their “peculiar institution” of slavery, he reveals a harsh and oppressive society. “Somerset,” he writes, was “as much a pro-slavery county as any county in Mississippi.”

When the Great Depression hit Somerset County hard, it led to even more racial scapegoating and violence—including lynching. One particularly egregious example, the vicious murder of George Armwood at the hands of an angry mob, “demonstrated how poverty, racial fear, and geographic isolation from the cultural mainstream could result in acts of horrendous violence,” Wennersten writes. It wasn’t until after WWII that legislation gave the federal government the power to go after lynchers.

In more recent times, Somerset County was the site of racial protests so violent that the National Guard was stationed in one town for nearly two years. The 60s “continue to be a defining moment in our culture,” notes Wennersten, “and the Eastern Shore became “part of a worldwide struggle for human rights.” Even today, he writes, the violent legacy of Somerset lives on and “continues to reflect the region’s problematic racial heritage.”

In writing “Strange Fruit,” Wennersten’s goal was to remind us all of the truths “that most people would rather not know about, especially when it comes to race.” His powerful book is a large step in that direction.

John R. Wennersten is a Professor Emeritus of American History at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, and the author of eleven books, including “Maryland’s Eastern Shore: A Journey in Time and Place” and “Chesapeake Bay: An Environmental History.”

The first book in Dan Fitzgerald’s Weirdwater Confluence Duology takes readers on a fantastical trip through “The Living Waters.”

Weirdwater Rafting
Welcome to the worlds of Dan Fitzgerald. The Hill fantasy writer who created a magical universe populated by warriors, mages, and man-beasts in The Maer Cycle Trilogy is back with a haunting new series.

“The Living Waters,” the first book in his planned Weirdwater Confluence Duology, begins with a river journey. The excursion is intended as a “roughabout” research adventure for a pair of untried young people. Sylvan, who just received his doctorate in Life Sciences, is eager to put his knowledge to use in the real world. And Temi is using the excursion to avoid a forced marriage that would assuage her family’s debt. They are chaperoned by Gilea, a seasoned traveler who is also an empath, and Leo, their strong and perennially cheerful boat captain.

Sylvan and Temi are part of a people called “painted faces,” who treasure and protect their pale skin and are known for being soft. According to Gilea, “their lives were so easy they had to go on roughabouts just so once in their life, they could experience the same struggles that were the daily lot of most people.” More than just an exercise in “eating mucky fish and river rat three meals a day,” the trip is seen as an opportunity to “wisen them up.”

But what the foursome encounters as they raft downstream in the swirling river—strange creatures, humanoids who can communicate with their minds, and menacing, shape-shifting waters—will change all of them in deeply significant ways. Much of what they experience strains belief, especially for the scientific-minded Sylvan. As he discovers, to his wide-eyed amazement, “there was much more in the world than what was written in his textbooks.”

In “The Living Waters,” Fitzgerald has crafted a fantastical tale about “a legendary place, said to hold wonders that defied the imagination”—but not, happily, the robust and unfettered imagination of Dan Fitzgerald. His created worlds are delightfully awe-inspiring places in which you’ll want to linger.

Dan Fitzgerald has already completed the second book in the duology, “The Isle of a Thousand Words,” which will be published in January 2022. Find him at www.danfitzwrites.com.

Based in part on oral history, Nora Jean and Michael H. Levin’s “A Border Town in Poland” tells the story of Hirsch Bieler’s life.

Beyond the Pale
In the late 18th century, Tsarist Russia created the Pale of Settlement to confine Jews into a swathe of provinces on the border of Russia and Poland. It was here, in 1900, in the Polish town of Grajewo, that Hirsch Bieler was born. The stories he later told of his eventful life echoed those of many of his lost generation. Now, more than a century later, his daughter and her husband have “pick[ed] up the baton,” compiling his “painstakingly detailed tales” into a book that serves both as a memorial to him and a testament to the times he lived through.

“A Border Town in Poland: A 20th Century Memoir,” as told to Nora Jean and Michael H. Levin, is the story of Bieler’s life, from his upbringing in Grajewo to his immigration to America just prior to World War II. And what stories he has to tell! Some of the most vivid involve Zelde, the ugly but clever crone who ran the town’s smuggling operation. Working as her courier helped him survive the poverty of his childhood—but also resulted in some hair-raisingly narrow escapes.

After WWI, he became “a man without a country.” He fled to Germany, where a kindly family saved him from deportation by adopting him and helping set him up in the fur business. When that failed, he survived by selling oil to farmers. Unfortunately, the rise of Nazism eventually took its toll. People he’d known for years turned on him and his citizenship was revoked. Thankfully, a contact in the oil business helped to get him a US visa and Bieler—now with a wife and young daughter—was able to come to America.

Throughout his life, Bieler supported his extended family, but when Europe fell to the Nazis, he was unable to get them out. The final section of the book reprints their heartbreaking letters pleading for help, and his desperate but ultimately doomed attempts to provide it. None of his relatives in former Poland survived the war.

The story of Bieler’s long life is one of displacement, resilience, loss, and hope. As the Levins write, “He shared his tales to make sure they would not be lost. He believed that through his telling, those lives would live on.” Thanks to them, they now do.

The Levins are also the authors of “Two Pianos: Playing for Life,” a documentary about female Jewish musicians who performed during the Third Reich. www.twopianosplayingforlife.org