Two children playing on a rowing skiff on Mill Creek in Maryland. Photograph by Robert de Gast, courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

Inheriting My Grandmother's James Michener Collection

James Michener’s books put forth the argument that thinking in the wider context of place and time doesn’t just benefit you as an artist; in the right hands, it has the capacity to make a lasting impact on the world.

In autumn 02021, I visited my hometown in Maryland for the first time in years after living across the country in New Mexico. I determined that the first stop on my trip would be a visit with my grandmother on the Eastern Shore. In Maryland, especially if one lives in proximity to the Bay, there is a delineation between the Western Shore and the Eastern Shore. The two coasts are connected by the Bay Bridge, but they’re quite different: The east is rural. Farmland is dotted with cows and the fields are filled to the brim with soybeans. Hunting for ducks is popular. There are no large cities and, instead, small, historic towns. The pace is slow. Many make their living by the water, whether that is via the tourism industry that booms in the summertime when families in cities flock to the quiet waterways, or through manning and repairing the boats that wander throughout rivers, streams, and the Bay proper. Others choose to drop crab traps and lines into the waters and cross their fingers as they yank them from the depths.

The Western Shore, on the other hand, is wrapped in highways. The land, if it wasn’t so developed, would be just as beautiful as the east. When I was growing up, most commuted into Annapolis, Washington D.C., or Baltimore for work. Because of that, the main conversation between adults was complaining about omnipresent, nerve-shredding traffic. My grandmother was born in the mountains of western Maryland, raised her family on the Western Shore, and retired to the Eastern Shore. I can’t help but correlate her with the waterways, the breeze, and the idle pace of the town, perhaps better called a village a hundred years ago, that she has called home for decades now.

Once I arrived at my grandmother’s, I was confronted by a simple fact: Even though I had been warned, her eyes were deteriorating. Prior to retirement, she had been a preschool teacher. She loved to read novels, play the piano, and paint. I spent a week with her each summer as I was growing up and savored the lazy, quiet days spent lounging across the fluffy comforters on her bed talking about books. I was a voracious reader, which grew into wanting to become a writer. Members of my nuclear family didn’t understand how anyone could find anything but drowsiness in a book, but my grandmother did. She was a creature with the same quiet habits.

My grandmother also had a rare, remarkable quality, even then: She spoke to me like I was an adult. She asked a lot of questions not because she needed to, but because she wanted to, and listened attentively to my reply. She was curious. At eight years old, I remember sitting on her bed and talking to her about World War II and what it was like for her to be a child during that era. She showed me ration stamps she kept from the 01940s and described the women of her life huddled around the family porch in the mountains, weaving and chatting about where their men could be right then in Europe. The resounding themes from my conversations with her always seemed to be about tolerance, despite differences in faith, color, or creed. Growing up in a time when intolerance defined her world left an enormous impression on her. Maybe she talked to me like an adult because she recalled understanding very adult things when she was just as small.

During my autumn visit, I realized that the sole figure in my life who had always mirrored my bookishness couldn’t hold one up and see it anymore. Thus, one afternoon we stood in front of her bookshelf and she plucked a paperback from the cherry-hued shelves and passed it to me. It was a copy of Chesapeake (01978) by James Michener, which was based on the Eastern Shore. I packed the weathered paperback and flew it to New Mexico. From the desert I seeped into a tale of my homeland I had never heard before: the Bay was the central character, except the narrative also featured Indigenous people seeing Europeans on their waterways for the first time. It featured Catholics fleeing England, Quakers running from Boston, pirates, ship-builders, slave-traders, fisherman, and the view of both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars from the Eastern Shore. When I visited Maryland again a few months later, my grandmother passed along more of her James Michener collection: Caribbean (01989), Poland (01983), Hawaii (01959), and Alaska (01988).

James Michener was born in Pennsylvania and raised a Quaker. He was decades older than my grandmother, yet they had a core fact in common: They were deeply touched by World War II. Michener was in his late thirties at the time with religious exemption but volunteered to go to the Pacific anyway. The experience of seeing the worst of humanity had everything to do with what came next: When he returned, he was staunch in his commitment to become a writer. It was like after the profundity of the war, there was no turning back:

“I never said I was going to be a great man because I had no idea what my capacities were. I had no great confidence; nothing in my background gave me a reason to think so. But I was not forestalled from acting as if I were. That is, deal with big subjects… Associate with people who are brighter than you are. Grapple with the problems of your time. And it was as clear to me as if a voice were telling me to do this: “This is the choosing-up point, kiddo, from here on.” I had no idea that life was as short as it is. That concept comes very late in any human life, I think. I thought life was immeasurable, extensive to the horizon and beyond. But I did know that my capacities were not unlimited. I had only so much to spend, and let’s do it in a big way. And I think that was all the difference.”

Throughout his career, Michener wrote dozens of books. The novels that my grandmother passed along to me rest at about a thousand pages apiece. Hawaii opens millions of years ago by describing how tectonic plates shifted to unleash the magma that formed the islands. A few million more years pass before a single, brave bird lands upon the rocky shore, empties its bowels, and releases the first seed onto the island. Caribbean opens similarly to Chesapeake in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with the Indigenous peoples whose civilizations were intertwined with the respective lands. Poland opens with the Taters of Mongolia rushing an attack on Krakow with a stop in Kyiv that resulted in ancient violences. Looking at news coverage today, it reminds the reader that history keeps repeating itself.

Michener’s process for writing a book started with meticulous research. For Chesapeake, he lived in St. Michaels on the eastern shore of Maryland. For Poland, he commissioned more than twenty leading academics in the nation to draft papers outlining what topics in Polish history were top-of-mind for scholars. Tonally, the books are patient. They are not arrogant. Most characters have heaps of goodness and wretchedness as real people do. This commitment to dive deep and take on complex topics caused his books to lean into the glories and shames of a place, and that didn’t come without repercussions. It took bravery. Poland was written while the USSR was still intact. Some books were temporarily banned in the precise countries they were based on.

In the introduction of Hawaii, writer Steve Berry noted that in one of Michener’s interviews later in life, he acknowledged that his books couldn’t have been written in the modern era. He knew he was lucky to write at a time when people had the attention spans to support dense, demanding works. It paid off. His fans were loyal, like my grandmother. Most of all, when I pick up Poland and read it now, I know that the depictions of various regional forces, even while fictionalized, contain central tendrils of truth that get me closer to understanding what I want to in the world around me. And understanding what I wish to isn’t about one narrative steamrolling over another: It’s the mess of what constitutes truth. I worry for a future where art is created that finds the search for multifaceted, complex, unpopular truths to be too arduous or controversial and, instead, simply ignores it.

A few years ago, I decided to go about becoming a writer by entering the freelance writing industry. As a contractor, I build my own schedule and balance creative pursuits alongside professional ones. Despite  that flexibility, I’m constantly confronted by the understanding  that how fast I can write a pitch, make phone calls, draft copy, write interview questions, and whip a story together defines my survival as a writer. But for a working creative, that’s the name of the game. You can’t survive without doing so. And on the purely literary end of the spectrum, there is an insatiable hunger to achieve everything I can as fast as possible to get the attention of an audience before they get distracted again. All of that goes against the grain of taking the concentrated time to see the big picture and create based on not the immediacy of right now, but on a human heritage much larger than that.

Yet James Michener’s books put forth the argument that thinking in the wider context of place and time doesn’t just benefit you as an artist; in the right hands, it has the capacity to make a lasting impact on the world. Doing so requires writers to train themselves to become more methodical and less reactionary. It requires patience with ourselves, one another, and the effort to understand that a single action is, more often than not, not an anomaly: It's likely a part of a pattern that may stretch across continents and cultures and only be visible for full examination in another fifty, hundred, or thousand years.

Once, a cousin noted that a character flaw of my grandmother was that she was not reactive. It’s not untrue—my grandmother avoids conflict. Yet my grandmother’s wisdom is that she can sit and watch the strangeness and the backwardness of modern times accumulate without having a knee-jerk reaction. Instead, she reflects, tries to make sense of things, and sees them in a wider context of now versus the world she was raised in. How did it change? What has improved? What did she dream would shift that hasn’t? On our visits, she answers all of these questions for me patiently. It's that quality of seeking a bird’s eye view that, funny enough, is why I think she adored James Michener’s books. It’s a brand of wisdom that I’ve always coveted in everyone I’ve ever met and rarely find. Even my fiancé regrets only meeting my grandmother later in her life because he wishes he could have seen these traits and been shaped by them, too.

Understanding all I wish to takes time. Every so often, I wonder if I, or anyone else, should put forth their best attempts at writing, painting, or creating any art that reflects the culture of our time if patience is such a virtue. And the answer is yes. There is so much mystery in our world and understanding any corner of it takes concentrated, sustained attention. It takes diligence. It takes bravery. And perhaps with a bit of bravery, more ambitious works that require commitment will become a trend once again. I’m waiting for it, preparing for it, thinking about where I should set my energies to create something meaningful. I don’t know how much longer my grandmother will be with me, but I try to think of her when I don’t know what to do: What would she tell me? What questions would she ask? What questions should I ask?

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