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Book Review: Still Water Bending

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by Larry Chowning

Still Water Bending” by Wendy Mitman Clarke is a 353-page novel written by a true student of Chesapeake Bay. The setting is in Northumberland County’s Ophelia and the protagonists are traditional Northern Neck families who, for generations, have made their living as watermen.

The storyline has Jines Arley Evans, a third generation waterman who lost his wife and son, leaving him alone to raise his daughter Lily Rae. After graduating from high school, Lily Rae gets a scholarship to the University of Maine and after college goes to work as a journalist—leaving Ophelia without hardly looking back. 

The father/daughter relation-ship had been substantially polarized by Jines’ indifference towards Lily, rooted from the anger of losing his wife and young son. A survivor, Lily Rae was smart enough to get an education, a good job and move away from Ophelia.

That is until nearly 10 years later when she received a phone call at her home in Maine that her father had suffered a stroke and needed her to assist him. A Potomac River pound net fisherman and boatbuilder by trade, Jines’ watermen’s world of fishing, boatbuilding, independence and self-reliance suddenly has come to an end. The storyline deals with the father’s and daughter’s anguish over their situation.

Clarke weaves into the story the cultural differences between a waterman’s life, rooted in 19th and 20th century traditions and attitudes, and the shoreline cultural revolution brought on at the end of World War II as prosperous times led to city folks moving to the bay waterfront—and to the two cultures co-existing together.

James Michener’s character Washburn Turlock, an aggressive real estate agent in his book “Chesapeake,” is represented in this book by Bradford Wilson who was Johnny on the spot to entice Lily Rae into selling her father’s ancestral land for $2 million to cover medical bills and high waterfront property taxes.

Jines had no health insurance. Clarke touches on the modern day dilemma of many families who have to, at the end of life, drain life savings to pay medical bills on the urban day assumption that life at any cost (including everything you own and have to pass down to your children) is a more noble loss than death. Jines disagrees!

Throughout the book the father and daughter clash over different values but blood ends up thicker than water and in the end they come to understand one another. The main bonding between the two comes when Jines gains enough strength to go into his boatbuilding shed and start building a deadrise skiff. Unable to handle the task, Lily Rae stepped in to help and during the process she begins to understand the merits of his life—driven by her father’s own desire to live life as he wants and as he wants it to end.

When it comes to the boatbuilding chapter, Clarke uses all the right terms thanks to several weeks of tutelage from none other than deadrise boatbuilder George Butler of Reedville. She even incorporates into the text George’s well-known 1890 “Josiah Ross” wood planer that his grandfather bought with the business, Reedville Marine Railway, in 1906. Clarke had it in Jines’ boatbuilding shop and nicknamed it the “Beast” because of its ability to eat up wood if not handled properly.

There is no issue of author Wendy Mitman Clarke not knowing her subject—the wonderful and dynamic Chesapeake Bay, its culture and heritage. Her prose flows like a swift running tide along the surface of the bay’s cut channel.

There is a sadness and a joy at the end of Jines Arley Evans life, but hope abounds as Lily Rae Evans fines redemption and understanding from her father’s struggle and determination to live and to die; from the Grove, the Evanses’ ancestral graveyard; from the boatbuilding shed; aboard Jines’ deadrise, “Jenny Rae,” named after Lily’s mother and built by her father; from the home and land where she grew up; and in the arms of Jamie Cockrell, a childhood friend who has grown up to be a man and the love of her life. 

The book was released in October in paperback and can be purchased for $17, and on Kindle for $5.99 through Amazon.

posted 12.11.2017

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