Holly Nadler in her Oak Bluffs store, Sun Porch Books. Photo by JJ Gonson
Have you heard?
"Vineyard Confidential" by Holly Nadler. Down East Books. 2006. 159 pages. $14.95.
In her tour de force, or perhaps tour de farce, Holly Nadler laments the loss of what every small town in New England once enjoyed: a keeper of the stories. "In the first half of the 20th century, Manuel [Swarz Roberts] operated a workshop in Edgartown across the from Chappaquiddick ferry," Ms. Nadler writes. "On stormy nights, when the ferry was shut down, the handful of school kids who lived on Chappy sought refuge in Manuel's workshop. They sat in the flickering lights cast by the boatbuilder's pot-bellied stove, and listened, rapt, as their host regaled them with stories about pirates and witches and damsels in distress and swashbuckling sailors and ghosts.
"As a young boy, Milton Jeffers devoured these tales and when, later in life, he grew into the kind of affable and gabby guy who enjoys spinning a good yarn, he passed along Manuel's stories as well as any new ones that made their way to his doorstep.... Milton Jeffers died a few years ago.... I've had my eyes open and ear cocked for the next Vineyard Virgil who can extend the stories into the next generation...."
This extensive collection of essays is a cornucopia of Vineyard stories, many of which have lain dormant in the clippings files of newspapers and the archives of the Martha's Vineyard Museum, bits of Island lore not quite au fait for more scholarly histories. Broken into sections such as Divas, Inc., VIPs, Customs of the Country, Scandal City, and the like, Nadler has ferreted out old scandals, reveals eccentrics of three centuries - human and animal - busts myths, revisits murders, of which there are almost as many as Phil Craig and Cynthia Riggs have invented, and does celebrity dish - in bite sizes. She delights in rooting out ancient conflicts, rumors, and more recent tittle-tattle. With her effervescent style, Ms. Nadler recreates scenes from yesteryear as she imagines they might have happened. Using documented written and oral history as a jumping-off place, she adds the lilt of a comedy writer. Like a gossip sheet, there is lots of conjecture, hearsay, and backyard chat. At the same time, these stories are a part of Vineyard history, and in the time when home entertainment was sitting around the pot bellied stove, or on Alley's porch, a raconteur worth his salt had more than a few of these in his repertoire.
Of course, no book by ghost-mistress Holly Nadler would be complete without a foray into the weird and supernatural. The author of "Haunted Island" and "Haunted Boston," Holly is an open-minded sort, willing to suspend disbelief in the interest of a good story. She posits a ghostly revenge by two young women, convicted for arson after a siege of mysterious fires in Cottage City in 1893. It seems that the girls had been servants in the Corbin-Norton house on Ocean Park, the same house that famously burned to the ground in 2001 after having been restored to its original beauty. Can ghosts set fires, she asks, or is this just mere coincidence?
Everyone knows the familiar photograph of President Ulysses S. Grant on the porch of the Gilbert Haven cottage on Clinton Ave. in the Campground. There's more to the visit than meets the eye.
Writes Ms. Nadler in the "Scandal City" section: "By now we're well aware of the various peccadilloes presidents can commit. For Ulysses S. Grant, who visited the island in August 1874, it was hard to endure a day of pomp and circumstance without a stiff one. In fact, for the general, a stiff one was necessary every half hour on the half hour. Chalk it up to bad planning then, when he accepted an invitation from Bishop Haven to lodge in the clergyman's cottage in the Wesleyan Grove Methodist Campground.... Grant attended the Sunday service, and it was the talk of the Campground whether or not the sermon might inspire the crusty old Civil War general to be saved...." She goes on to tell us that Grant, far from being saved, dozed off and, upon awakening... "slipped a flask from his pocket and - forgetting where he was - took a swig." The president was asked to find other accommodation, which ended up being in the home of Dr. Tucker, made wealthy on his "Diaphoretic Compound #59," an opium-based elixir. We can only suppose, as does Nadler, that the president was more comfortable in less restrictive surroundings.
While "Vineyard Confidential" may not make it into classrooms as a history text, it is tempting to think of it as a companion book to Banks's 1911 tome. Ms. Nadler has tweaked history into sketch comedy, leavened the hard stuff of life in the early centuries with a 21st century sensibility. Her take on recent history is more apt to be challenged by the living, but gossip columnists - and this is, after all, gossip - take that chance. Nadler's writing is like sitting on the front porch, listening to a really fine anecdotist weave fact and imagination into a froth of entertainment.
Like Manuel Swarz Roberts, or Milton Jeffers, Holly Nadler has become the keeper of the stories. If she's looking for the Vineyard Virgil, she should look no further than in the mirror.
Susan Wilson is a writer and author of several novels who lives in Oak Bluffs. Her column, The Last Word, appears in The Times.