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An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake

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Smith Island is a marshy archipelago in mid-Chesapeake Bay, nine miles from the mainland, home to 150 watermen and their families. This book is a portrait of a people who have remained intimately connected to the place in which they live, far past the time when "place" and "nature" any longer have immediate consequence to most of our lives. Tom Horton lived for nearly thre Smith Island is a marshy archipelago in mid-Chesapeake Bay, nine miles from the mainland, home to 150 watermen and their families. This book is a portrait of a people who have remained intimately connected to the place in which they live, far past the time when "place" and "nature" any longer have immediate consequence to most of our lives. Tom Horton lived for nearly three years on Smith Island, recording through observation and interviews the traditions of oystering, crab catching, churchgoing, hunting and poaching, and the social rituals of these fiercely independent men and women. His beautifully elegiac story is about community and isolation, harvest and exploitation, and the risks and charms of being different from the surrounding world. Like Ian Frazier's The Great Plains, this is a book that grows from a vast and unique geography. The grassy shallows and the hidden bottoms of Smith Island, and of the Chesapeake, once supported a variety of waterfowl and marine life that astonished the early explorers. The decline of these natural wonders and the attempt to restore the health of Chesapeake Bay is one part of the story; the other is an effort to give voice to a distinctive people whose three centuries of working and being constitute an eloquent statement of humans in nature.


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Smith Island is a marshy archipelago in mid-Chesapeake Bay, nine miles from the mainland, home to 150 watermen and their families. This book is a portrait of a people who have remained intimately connected to the place in which they live, far past the time when "place" and "nature" any longer have immediate consequence to most of our lives. Tom Horton lived for nearly thre Smith Island is a marshy archipelago in mid-Chesapeake Bay, nine miles from the mainland, home to 150 watermen and their families. This book is a portrait of a people who have remained intimately connected to the place in which they live, far past the time when "place" and "nature" any longer have immediate consequence to most of our lives. Tom Horton lived for nearly three years on Smith Island, recording through observation and interviews the traditions of oystering, crab catching, churchgoing, hunting and poaching, and the social rituals of these fiercely independent men and women. His beautifully elegiac story is about community and isolation, harvest and exploitation, and the risks and charms of being different from the surrounding world. Like Ian Frazier's The Great Plains, this is a book that grows from a vast and unique geography. The grassy shallows and the hidden bottoms of Smith Island, and of the Chesapeake, once supported a variety of waterfowl and marine life that astonished the early explorers. The decline of these natural wonders and the attempt to restore the health of Chesapeake Bay is one part of the story; the other is an effort to give voice to a distinctive people whose three centuries of working and being constitute an eloquent statement of humans in nature.

30 review for An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake

  1. 5 out of 5

    Paul Haspel

    The island that is “out of time,” in this 1996 book by Tom Horton, is Smith Island, Maryland; and that small Chesapeake Bay island community, according to Horton, is “an island out of time” in a couple of different ways. On the one hand, Smith Island seems to stand outside of time, with the islanders’ gently paced routine of work, prayer, and community participation seemingly unaffected by the ever-accelerating pace of modern life. At the same time, however, Smith Island may be an island that is The island that is “out of time,” in this 1996 book by Tom Horton, is Smith Island, Maryland; and that small Chesapeake Bay island community, according to Horton, is “an island out of time” in a couple of different ways. On the one hand, Smith Island seems to stand outside of time, with the islanders’ gently paced routine of work, prayer, and community participation seemingly unaffected by the ever-accelerating pace of modern life. At the same time, however, Smith Island may be an island that is “out of time” in the sense of running out of time, with pollution threatening the islanders' livelihoods, and rising sea levels endangering the island's very existence. All of these factors contribute to a sense of urgency that characterizes Horton’s book An Island Out of Time. Horton, a long-time nature writer for the Baltimore Sun, has written books like Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay (1991) that set forth eloquently and persuasively the case for preserving the threatened ecosystem of the Chesapeake. Yet what makes An Island Out of Time different is that it contains a piquant element of participatory journalism, and works almost as an ethnographic study; it is, as the book's subtitle has it, A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake. Horton, you see, moved with his family from Baltimore to Smith Island, and lived there for about three years. They gave up the fast-paced and convenience-laden lifestyle of modern metropolitan America to relocate to a remote island that only has three village communities – Ewell, Rhodes Point, and Tylerton. They left a land of beltways and shopping malls and multi-story parking lots to live in a place where a car is not much use, and where the best way to travel anywhere is usually by water. Accordingly, Horton and his family had to learn, and accommodate to, the Smith Islanders’ ways if they were to make the best of their stay on the island. Throughout An Island Out of Time, Horton does an excellent job of chronicling the beauty of Smith Island and the unique life of its people. There are paradoxes to Smith Island life, to be sure. The island is strongly dependent on tourism; Smith Island is famous, for instance, for the “Smith Island cake” that contains 8 to 15 frosted layers and is notoriously difficult to bake. But Smith Islanders take their religious faith seriously, and a tourist carrying a beer in public may get more than a few disapproving looks. And yet Horton, fair-mindedly, recognizes that there are likewise paradoxes to the life he left behind in modern metropolitan America, and describes how Smith Island life may confer benefits that a resident of a large, anonymous suburban community might miss out on. Horton is drawn toward such reflections after Liddy Marsh, an 80-year-old mainstay of Tylerton, dies and is honored for her long life of service and contribution to the entire Smith Island community: I hope someday to be missed as islanders are missed. There is so much about relationship here that goes back so far and so deep, so much that is known so well it need not, or cannot, be fully expressed. It is like the tide flowing through a deep channel, moving so uniformly and implacably, you can’t tell its power except where a snag or a crab pot marker perturbs the smooth surface. An outsider cannot realize how integral to the community here an individual is until they are torn from it, and the stories come welling out. (p. 101) Wisely, Horton often lets the people of Smith Island speak for themselves, expressing their often divergent views on issues like crab harvesting, government regulation, community religious norms, and outsiders' perception of the island as “isolated” – as when, in a chapter titled “To Be an Islander,” a 46-year-old Smith Islander named Tim provides his impressions regarding the encroachments of the outside world: “I’m committee-pissed-off right now. I have been to one meeting about a new government water system for the island, and to another about a tourist museum the state is putting here. It seems to me when we were all just a bunch of wild horses over here, there wasn’t much anybody could do with us; but now, with all these committees, they got us corralled down to where they can push us whichever way they want.” (p. 201) Late in the book, in an epilogue, Horton invokes the saga of Holland Island – a Chesapeake Bay island not unlike Smith. It once had hundreds of residents, but was gradually reduced in size by erosion; its last residents left the island in 1922. Long after the book's publication, in 2010, the last home on the last vestige of Holland Island collapsed into the Chesapeake. Horton, invoking the fate of Holland Island, concludes by drawing an extended metaphor: Everywhere, people are beginning to realize that the planet itself is an island – that all of us, eventually, must act as if its resources and capacity to absorb pollution are finite, and learn how to live within our means….We are all, in a sense, islanders. We just draw, as yet, from a bigger pool than the bay, and mask our overdrafts for a time with technology, or by flushing pollution off to “somewhere else.” (p. 308) We are all islanders. As Smith Island, Maryland, is an island with limited resources, whose people must work to preserve it for future generations, so is our planet – what a 1950’s science-fiction movie once referred to as This Island Earth. An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake captures well author Horton’s affection for the island community that he called home for three years – and conveys a powerful message regarding the importance of preserving fragile ecosystems like that of Smith Island – or like that of the place where each of us lives.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    It's unfair for me to review this book as it was just not for me. I have no interest in reading about crabbing techniques or making eight layer cake. There's not much else to do on Smith Island. Smith Island may be a wonderful tourist destination, but it does not make for interesting reading.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Paul Haspel

    The title is a fine play on words. Smith Island, Maryland, is "an island out of time" in the way it seems to stand outside of time, with the islanders' lives of work, prayer, and community seeming relatively unchanged by the ever-accelerating pace of modern life. At the same time, Smith Island may be running "out of time"; the oyster beds on which watermen used to depend for wintertime income have continued to decline, pollution continues to take a toll on the rich biodiversity of the Chesapeake The title is a fine play on words. Smith Island, Maryland, is "an island out of time" in the way it seems to stand outside of time, with the islanders' lives of work, prayer, and community seeming relatively unchanged by the ever-accelerating pace of modern life. At the same time, Smith Island may be running "out of time"; the oyster beds on which watermen used to depend for wintertime income have continued to decline, pollution continues to take a toll on the rich biodiversity of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and rising sea levels due to climate change could result in the entire island being underwater within a century. All that being said, longtime Baltimore Sun nature writer Tom Horton, who moved with his family from Baltimore to Smith Island and lived there for about three years, does an excellent job of chronicling the unique and beautiful life of Smith Island and its people. Wisely, Horton often lets the people of Smith Island speak for themselves, expressing their often divergent views on issues like crab harvesting, government regulation, community religious norms, and outsiders' perception of the island as "isolated." Horton concludes by drawing an extended metaphor; as Smith Island is an island with limited resources, whose people must work to preserve it for future generations, so perhaps is our Earth. An excellent book for anyone interested in ecology, or in Eastern Shore history and culture.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Joanna

    Slow reading in some places, redundant and overly long, the book is written by a Baltimore reporter, who relocated with his family to the island to write this book. People often jokingly inquire: how many words do the Inuits have for snow? Forrest Gump detailed the infinite ways to prepare shrimp...Horton’s book is this kind of conundrum, inquiring how many different ways can Smith Island be described...through it’s people, the process of crabbing, hunting and women’s work, occupations, Island l Slow reading in some places, redundant and overly long, the book is written by a Baltimore reporter, who relocated with his family to the island to write this book. People often jokingly inquire: how many words do the Inuits have for snow? Forrest Gump detailed the infinite ways to prepare shrimp...Horton’s book is this kind of conundrum, inquiring how many different ways can Smith Island be described...through it’s people, the process of crabbing, hunting and women’s work, occupations, Island life, churches, etc. However, in constructing the book in this way, there is much overlap and redundancy, making for an often tedious read slogging through endless stories about crabbing, it’s hardships and Island life. Way before being midway through Horton’s Island memoir, I wanted to scream, “OKAY!!! I get it, I get it, now can we move on??? Thus, my three-star review.

  5. 5 out of 5

    LInda L

    The title covers two things -- Smith Island is indeed not in the present time in many ways, BUT more importantly, it is not-so-slowly washing away. Sadly, its days are numbered and they are very few.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    An enjoyable look at a unique place. I learned a lot about the natural elements of the bay and the culture of the island. Well worth reading.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    charming book about the unique places and people of Smith Island. Glad I read it.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

    ❤️❤️❤️❤️

  9. 5 out of 5

    Patty

    Fifteen years ago, Tom Horton published a book about his time living on Smith Island which is in both Maryland and Virginia. He actually moved there in 1986, so the three years that Horton was writing about is more than 20 years ago. This is a wonderfully written book. Horton helped me to see the island without rose colored glasses. The spring, summer and fall sounds idyllic - I could move in a heartbeat. To live that close to the water, all the crab meat I could eat, the opportunities to explor Fifteen years ago, Tom Horton published a book about his time living on Smith Island which is in both Maryland and Virginia. He actually moved there in 1986, so the three years that Horton was writing about is more than 20 years ago. This is a wonderfully written book. Horton helped me to see the island without rose colored glasses. The spring, summer and fall sounds idyllic - I could move in a heartbeat. To live that close to the water, all the crab meat I could eat, the opportunities to explore the marshes, see the birds. But then there is winter, which sounds dreadful. And the lack of things that I take for granted - libraries, restaurants, good grocery stores, movies, etc., etc. The people on Smith Island do not have an easy life, but it is truly theirs. I am pretty sure I couldn't live there. It is so good that Horton was able to preserve so much about the culture of Smith Island in this book. He was not a "real" Smith Islander, but he lived there long enough not to be an outsider. Horton does an excellent job of seeing and writing about Smith Island preserving some parts of a very different place. It was good to spend some time there with Horton as my guide. I suspect the Smith Island he visited barely exists anymore. Apparently there are more people living there now than in 1986-89, but that just means there are more outsiders there. Progress is progress, but it might be the end of Smith Island - if the rising sea water doesn't get there first. If you want to visit a unique culture, a very self sufficient community, read this book. If you like the Chesapeake Bay, crabbing, fishing, or just being near any water, read this book. Either way you won't be sorry.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    Interesting and surprising look at life on Smith Island that ranks right up there with Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay and Skipjack: The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen on my list of favorite books about the Chesapeake Bay. The stories and vignettes float this way and that, making it an easy book to read in fits and starts. I enjoyed the chapter on women's lives and the struggles to move from picking crabs in home kitchens to a state-approved crab picking coo Interesting and surprising look at life on Smith Island that ranks right up there with Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay and Skipjack: The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen on my list of favorite books about the Chesapeake Bay. The stories and vignettes float this way and that, making it an easy book to read in fits and starts. I enjoyed the chapter on women's lives and the struggles to move from picking crabs in home kitchens to a state-approved crab picking cooperative. I was surprised at the way salty jokes and deep Methodist faith coexist in the lives of the Smith Islanders. I was fascinated by the brief comparison to Tangier Island at the end of the book (Smith Island's high ground is separated, which led to three distinct communities and churches, while Tangiermen have a central government and more organized approach to dealing with rising Bay levels and dwindling fisheries). I was also surprised about how interested I was in reading about duck hunting and trapping. I look forward to visiting Smith Island soon, and not just for the cake. (But still for the cake.)

  11. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

    The author lived on tiny Smith Island in Chesapeake Bay for three years and gives a detailed description of the island and the people and their way of life that appears to be dying. Almost everyone who lives there is a "waterman", seeking oysters, crabs & fish to make a living. Many islanders are descendants of the original British settlers and speak a quaint dialect of their own. For children, the island is a safe paradise but there are no jobs as they grow up unless they want to emulate their The author lived on tiny Smith Island in Chesapeake Bay for three years and gives a detailed description of the island and the people and their way of life that appears to be dying. Almost everyone who lives there is a "waterman", seeking oysters, crabs & fish to make a living. Many islanders are descendants of the original British settlers and speak a quaint dialect of their own. For children, the island is a safe paradise but there are no jobs as they grow up unless they want to emulate their fathers backbreaking jobs on the water. Even if they do, the supplies of fish & oysters & crab are diminishing. I really enjoyed this book but it was sad to think that the island and its lifestyle is slowly going away.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ginacico

    Excellent descriptions of the oystering, crabbing (including an entire chapter on the sex lives of Blue Crabs - cool!), and fishing operations that have kept Smith Island alive while challenging common wisdom about Chesapeake Bay preservation. Tom Horton writes wonderful character descriptions about the island inhabitants, and how their culture sustains them despite the challenges they face. A must-read for anyone who loves the Bay.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jeshka21

    A great memoir and close to my heart as someone who lives on the Eastern Shore and has spent a lot of time in different areas on the Shore. Tom moved with his family for 3 years to Smith Island, a notoriously close-knit and private crabbing community. Definetely a good read in a documentary kind of way.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Amber

    It made my visit to Smith Island much more meaningful. I had the opportunity to meet people/see places I had read about in the book. If you visit Smith Island, I highly recommend staying at the Inn of Silent Music.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Joe Vess

    Just a beautiful, evocative book. Joins the list with Skipjack and Beautiful Swimmers of the amazing, lyrical books about the Chesapeake Bay and its people, animals and culture.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Matt Tillett

    A mixture of anecdotes, personal observation and transcripts of primary sources, this excellent book is a must-read for those of us with vetted interest in Chesapeake Bay conservation and history.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Renee

    A must read for those who lived and loved the Chesapeake .

  18. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    Didn't finish, other stuff got in the way, but do want to come back to it, as it was a great story so far.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sharon Gentile

    Awesome read, have visited the island and can relate to most of what the author talks about in this memoir.

  20. 5 out of 5

    David Ryan

    A good read!

  21. 4 out of 5

    Galadriel

    So far, I'm completely entranced by Horton's writing; his description of blue crabs' love making (not mating!) is stunning.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Bob

    This book is a must read if you are planning on visiting Smith or Tangier Islands, very unique places in today's America. We visited on our boat and it has been the best place in the Chesapeake.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Katie

  24. 4 out of 5

    Megan

  25. 5 out of 5

    Brian

  26. 5 out of 5

    Julie

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ann

  28. 5 out of 5

    Karen

  29. 4 out of 5

    Betsy

  30. 5 out of 5

    Julie

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