Portsmouth where? Maine? Virginia?
Like many North Carolinians, my friend had not heard of Portsmouth, North Carolina. He was resisting my push to visit Portsmouth in connection with a planned trip to Ocracoke Island to participate in a program for public school teachers organized by the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, known as NCCAT.
Take out a state road map, I said, and look for an island just south of Ocracoke. You will see Portsmouth Island, and on it is marked the town of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth is just a small village with a few old buildings: Houses, a store, post office, church, a former lifesaving station, and a graveyard.
But no living people.
By the 1970s only three people remained on the island and they are long since gone.
The buildings, maintained by the National Park Service, stand as reminders of what Portsmouth once was: a thriving and important commercial center.
Portsmouth lies to the south of Ocracoke Island, separated by Ocracoke Inlet, which, according to the late Dirk Frankenberg’s recently reissued classic, “The Nature of North Carolina’s Southern Coast,” is “the only inlet on the Outer Banks that has been open continuously throughout recorded history. It was a major entry into North Carolina’s coastal sound and estuaries in colonial times—first for pirates and smugglers” including Blackbeard, who was killed at the inlet in 1718. After the Revolutionary War, “the inlet became important as a transshipment site for materials used for developing the land resources of North Carolina and southern Virginia.”
The village, established in the 1750s, Frankenberg wrote, “played a major role in the maritime commerce of North Carolina for the next century.”
Local pilots were necessary to guide ocean-going boats across the shallow inlet. Later, facilities grew up to accommodate the need to transfer goods between larger ocean-going ships and the smaller boats that delivered cargo to local ports near the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds.
Over time a sand build-up made the Ocracoke Inlet more tortuous, and Frankenberg wrote that it was “quickly abandoned for the clearer channels of Hatteras and Oregon Inlets that were opened by the hurricane of 1846.”
My friend agreed to add Portsmouth to our trip. Our three-hour ferry ride from Swan Quarter got us to Ocracoke just in time to join NCCAT leader Alton Ballance and his group of teachers on a boat that gave us a long, cold ride across the inlet to Portsmouth with guide Rudy Austin.
Austin told us about each building and the people who worked and lived there. But other than his voice there was no sound. The eerie quietness surprised and then delighted us.
Ballance told us about once spending the night alone in the deserted village, feeling the spirits of the dead and departed villagers and trying to imagine what they were like and how they lived.
Later I remembered how Michael Parker’s book, “The Watery Part of the World,” set out a fictionalized version of the last three people who lived on the island. In Parker’s version, university researchers visited a couple of times each year and asked questions about history and life on the island. They recorded the answers and preserved the distinctive way the threesome spoke. Their answers were not always totally honest, and their brogues became more pronounced for the outsiders they called “the Tape Recorders.”
The history lessons and the spur to imagination that came from our visit to Portsmouth make such a trip easy to recommend, notwithstanding the difficulty in getting there.
But, says guide Rudy Austin, be careful about going in the summertime when mosquitoes and other bugs “will eat you alive.”
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch.” During UNC-TV’s Festival, when regular programming is preempted, Bookwatch Classics (programs from earlier years) airs Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. on UNC-MX, a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4). Next week’s (March 6) guest is Gwendoline Fortune, author of “Growing Up Nigger Rich.” That same day at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Bob Garner will discuss his new book, “Bob Garner’s Book of Barbecue: North Carolina’s Favorite Food.”
A grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North Carolina Bookwatch.http://chapelboro.com/columns/one-on-one/the-eerie-quietness-of-a-once-thriving-island
Those who missed North Carolina Bookwatch on UNC-TV while it has been off the air to make room for “Festival’s” special programming can look forward to this Sunday afternoon at five o’clock. Bookwatch returns with an encore lineup of books, authors, and characters.
It all begins next Sunday with Rachel, the blue-eyed child of a black American GI and a Danish mother, who is the central character in an award-winning novel, “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” by Heidi Durrow. Durrow herself is the child of a Danish mother and an African-American father, whose military assignments brought him to North Carolina. The author’s real struggle to find her identity provided the background for the similar fictional struggle that Rachel faced. But the novel is a darker story, a more compelling one, of a child whose mother loved her so much she wanted her child to die with her. (Durrow will be my Bookwatch guest at 5:00 p.m. Sunday, April 1.)
From “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 to Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind,” to Ethel Waters in “Member of the Wedding” in 1952, African-American actresses made their way into American movies in the first half of the last century. In her new book, “African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900–1960,” UNC-Chapel Hill professor Charlene Regester tells the real stories of these women who became stars in a time of segregation and oppression. (April 8)
John Hart’s novel “The Lost Child” won for him a second Edgar Award for the best mystery novel of the year. He says his latest, “Iron House,” is even better. It is a page-turner, with much of the action set on a large estate near Chapel Hill owned by a wealthy U.S. Senator. (April 15)
Hillsborough author, Anna Jean Mayhew, and a new novel, “The Dry Grass of August”, take us all the way back to the racially-segregated Charlotte of 1954 and the poignant story of a young girl in a family under stress, being pulled apart by forces the girl does not understand. It is a story, in Lee Smith’s words, that is “written with unusual charm, wonderful dialogue, and a deeply felt sense of time and place.” (April 22)
One of North Carolina’s most respected authors, UNC-Greensboro’s Michael Parker’s new book, “The Watery Part Of The World,” is an imaginative story that blends coastal history and legends with race and other complexities to make a gripping and lovely story. (April 29)
Best-selling author Steve Berry’s many visits to eastern North Carolina led him to set much of his newest adventure novel, “The Jefferson Key,” in and around the town of Bath, where fictional modern-day pirates live in palatial estates. (May 6)
Rosecrans Baldwin’s first novel “You Lost Me There” is set in Maine, and Baldwin has only recently settled in Chapel Hill. But when the book was named one of National Public Radio’s Best Books of 2010, a Best Book of Summer 2010 by Time and Entertainment Weekly, and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, I knew Bookwatch viewers would want to learn about Baldwin and his highly praised book. (May 13)
Morehead Scholar and Rhodes Scholar Robyn Hadley used her experience in counseling students in the Alamance-Burlington school system to write a book for students planning for college. The book is “Within View, Within Reach: Navigating the College-Bound Journey.” Hadley’s good advice might be even more important for parents of prospective college students. (May 20)
Last fall, Charles Frazier’s “Nightwoods” made the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for weeks. “Nightwoods” may not be the same kind of blockbuster that his “Cold Mountain,” but it is a solid success sales-wise. “Nightwoods” is set in Frazier’s beloved North Carolina mountains. With engaging characters and a story line of suspense and surprise, this short book is attracting a new group of fans. Because it is compact it opens the doors for a wider audience to become acquainted with Frazier’s magnificent gifts. Many people who did not finish “Cold Mountain” or “Thirteen Moons” are, through “Nightwoods,” enjoying Frazier’s luscious prose. (May 27)http://chapelboro.com/columns/one-on-one/bookwatch-returns-with-authors-who-were-worth-waiting-for
What books are you looking forward to this fall? Let me know below.