In praise of the page, fishing and witches, farming to forests

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / February 13, 2011

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At some level, New England is hopelessly old-fashioned. No media hucksters are rushing to film “The Real Housewives of Harpswell, Maine.’’ The multiplexes aren’t screening “The Salem Witch Project.’’ And the National Geographic Channel isn’t banging down doors to produce “Vermont State Troopers.’’ We New Englanders remain a literate lot and, much of the time, we think, read, and write about New England. The icy clutches of winter give us a fine excuse to curl up with a good book. Here are 14 candidates for the armchair that were published in the last year.

In “A City So Grand’’ (Beacon Press, $26.95) popular historian Stephen Puleo focuses on what might be Boston’s salad days, its 1850-1900 rise from big town to international metropolis. With a superb handling of narrative, Puleo courses through Boston’s role in the antislavery movement and the Civil War. He tells a gripping tale of the Great Fire of 1872 and the subsequent reinvention of the city. In Puleo’s hands, Boston itself becomes a heroic character, driving toward modernity from a salutary combination of moral fiber and gumption.

History professor Michael Rawson credits modern Boston with shaping American ideas about the relationship of a city to the natural world. His “Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston’’ (Harvard University Press, $29.95) is full of examples. To create a municipal water supply Bostonians argued that water was a right, not a privilege. Rawson even contends that we invented the “Romantic suburb’’ as a rural enclave that workmen left daily to labor in the city. As soon as we built a metropolis to triumph over the raw countryside, he suggests, we set about re-creating Eden in our parklands.

In “The King’s Best Highway’’ (Scribner, $27.50) Eric Jaffe has performed a valiant rescue of the scattered stories of the Boston Post Road, which he boldly calls “the route that made America.’’ The original, of course, is really two main routes between Boston and New York — one that follows the coast and another that heads due west to Springfield, then follows the Connecticut River to the coast. In writing about either fork, Jaffe can send shivers down a reader’s neck by evoking the early years when the post road was little more than a barely beaten wilderness path.

Authors with personal connections to their subjects often create the most compelling histories. John N. Morris is the grandson of Gloucester doryman Steve Olsson, who perished in March 1935 while trawling for halibut. That loss inspired Morris to write “Alone at Sea: Gloucester in the Age of the Dorymen (1623-1939)’’ (Commonwealth Editions, $34.95). The book is at once a personal search for a lost grandfather and an authoritative history of Gloucester fishing. The subject is huge, stretching over centuries and involving thousands of personal tragedies as well as the everyday triumphs of the iconic Gloucester fishermen.

Diane E. Foulds, a frequent contributor to this section, is a 10th generation descendent of one of the 19 convicted witches hanged in Salem. Her “Death in Salem: The Private Lives Behind the 1692 Witch Hunt’’ (Globe Pequot Press, $19.95) traces the individual circumstances among the accusers, victims, clergy, judges, and elite. Difficult and often tragic lives, she suggests, conditioned many of the players to act as they did. It is startling to read about these characters caught up in one of the most mythic events of New England history and realize how simply human they were.

Witch hunt victim Giles Corey appears as one of the case histories in “Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks’’ (Globe Pequot Press, $16.95). Matthew P. Mayo, a prolific author of western fiction, pulls out all the stops of his pulp style to dramatize “Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of Hardscrabble New England,’’ including Corey’s death by crushing after he refused to enter a plea in his witchcraft trial. Mayo covers other lurid moments, such as the Lizzie Borden case, and resurrects many low points of New England history, including shipwreck cannibalism, the exhumation of a tuberculosis victim suspected of being a vampire, and numerous accounts of rum runners. Mayo follows each fictional sketch with more clear-eyed history putting the event in context.

Not surprisingly, there’s a certain amount of overlap in “The New England Grimpendium: A Guide to Macabre and Ghastly Sites’’ (Countryman Press, $18.95), but J.W. Ocker’s obsession with the macabre extends to the birthplace of serial killer Ted Bundy, the grave of the Boston Strangler, and the many sites in Maine where Stephen King movies were filmed. Ocker is clearly an ardent researcher, but defines “macabre’’ so broadly as to include such obscure entries as the site of the former Somerville movie theater where Bobby “Boris’’ Pickett of “Monster Mash’’ fame watched horror movies as a child.

Perhaps we have short attention spans. Our favorite history of maritime Massachusetts (“Massachusetts by the Sea: 1630-1930,’’ by George Caspar Homans and Samuel Eliot Morison) runs only 32 pages. Suffolk University historian Robert Allison displays similar verbal economy. In a little over 100 pages, his “A Short History of Cape Cod’’ (Commonwealth Editions, $14.95) achieves a near-perfect balance between Big Picture information (geology, economy, government, religion . . . ) and telling details, such as the photo of Eugene O’Neill running out of the surf celebrating news of his 1920 Pulitzer Prize.

Vanishing ways of life are a staple of New England literature. Tom Dunlop’s prose and Alison Shaw’s photos make “Schooner: Building a Wooden Boat on Martha’s Vineyard’’ (Vineyard Stories, $44.95) a coffee table book worth savoring. The tale of the construction of the 60-foot schooner “Rebecca’’ by the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway in Vineyard Haven is both an adventure story in canvas and wood and a paean to the boatbuilder’s art.

“Quite a Sightly Place: A Family Dairy Farm in Vermont’’ (Commonwealth Editions, $29.95) records award-winning photographer David Middleton’s deep and abiding affection for the Bromley family farm in Danby. His chronicle of the people, place, and creatures is simultaneously poignant — it is a threatened way of life, after all — and resoundingly triumphant. He even makes poetry of manure.

Edo Potter’s gently rambling memoir, “Pimpneymouse Farm: The Last Farm on Chappaquiddick’’ (Vineyard Stories, $22.95), recounts what many might consider an idyllic childhood. From 1932-45 her family ran a summer truck farm on the most offshore of islands, isolated from Edgartown by culture as much as by channel. An ardent conservationist and four-term Edgartown selectman, Potter now lives full time on Chappaquiddick.

While Potter grew up on a farm, Angela Miller fled to one. “Hay Fever: How Chasing a Dream on a Vermont Farm Changed My Life’’ (John Wiley & Sons, $24.95) might be the perfect antidote to city dreamers imagining a perfect life on a Vermont farm. One of the beauties of Miller’s account of her journey from authors’ agent to maker of goat cheeses is that she acknowledges her need for both the urban and rural worlds. She also provides a window on cheesemaking that should satisfy even the foodiest reader.

New England has less farmland and more forest than it did a century ago. The past year saw two terrific new field guides to the woods. Peter J. Marchand’s “Nature Guide to the Northern Forest’’ (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, $19.95) balances natural history narrative with concise field notes on flora and fauna. It’s a valuable addition to every outdoorsman’s library.

In “Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape’’ (Countryman Press, $14.95), Tom Wessels uses simple prose and copious photos to show how to decipher the back story of forested land: when and how it was cleared, how it was farmed or logged, when the trees encroached and reclaimed their own. He provides the skills to turn every woods walker into a historian.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@