Reading “Vineyard Voices Three” is like entering a robust cocktail party with some 76 engrossing people from all walks of life here on the Vineyard — and the luxury of an intimate conversation with each of them. And like a good cocktail party, you can mix and mingle with these folks in any order. You can do the same with this handsome book, picking it up whenever it strikes you. However, you might end up saying, “Well, I’ll read just one more” and then find yourself doing this again and again.
Linsey Lee, oral history curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, says what she wants us to come away from the book and accompanying exhibit with is “to get a sense of the amazingness, just how incredible each person is. Everybody has a story. I put it together, but they’re the ones who create the lovely tapestry.” And it is indeed an absorbing tapestry of our Island.
“One of the things that’s different about this book than my other ‘Vineyard Voices’ is that the demographics of the Vineyard have changed so much in the past 20 years. There are so many people who live here or come here who have spent the majority of their life off-Island. But now their experiences elsewhere make the fabric of the Vineyard. There are still a lot of people who are Island-born, but not as many,” Lee added.
One of Lee’s important criteria is to capture the incredible diversity here — experiential, ethnic, age, you name it. She is crucially aware about reflecting, as she says, “the diversity of our community: Wampanoag, African Americans, Portuguese, Brazilians, and Yankees. For a small Island, we have people from so many different backgrounds and experiences. I try to interview people we don’t always hear from. There are a few famous people, but on the whole, I’m trying to talk to the everyday people, because they’re what make up the fabric of the Island. To give a voice to those people who aren’t always heard.”
And the array of experiences is most definitely vast. It’s thrilling to learn about such things as the origins of the Shearer Theater from Olive Tomlinson, and her own involvement as a youngster; that the Gay Head Baptist Church is the oldest Native American church in the country; as well as Patsy Malonson’s memories about telephone party lines and Donald Malonson recalling the half-size ponies that ran wild up-Island. And not only did I discover how Augustus (“Gus”) Ben David became the director of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, but how his little orphan sheep, which he named Little One, would follow him into school, then out again at recess.
An amusing Vineyard childhood story was Phronsie Conlin’s about the hurdy-gurdy man who came with the monkey on his shoulder to her neighborhood to sharpen knives. There is also Jules Worthington talking about getting to know artist Thomas Hart Benton on the Island. Once, after copying one of his paintings of Quitsa, Worthington took it to Benton for a critique. He reports that Benton was quite nice about it, saying, “Why don’t you paint them, and I’ll sign them, and we’ll make some money!”
Several of the profiles include memories about the civil rights era and World War II, including James McLaurin’s riveting description of his hair-raising missions as one the Tuskegee Airmen. Eladio Falcao talks about how he immediately fell in love with the Island when the ferry stopped in Oak Bluffs, his immigration process, which took almost 11 long years, and what it’s like nowadays for Brazilians, as well as the Eastern Europeans here, who are struggling to become legal. Particularly profound were Netty and Maurice Vanderpol sharing how each of them survived the Holocaust as Jews from the Netherlands. While Netty’s story is one of hiding and the people who sheltered her, Maurice spoke about life in Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, and working on the transport trains … and his own final trip out of the camp.
Because there is so much more to the book, I wondered how Lee made her own decisions. Not only did she have to select from her initial list of 154 interviews, she also had to make agonizing choices of what to exclude when trying to distill each person’s 300 to 400 pages of transcription down to three to five pages. Lee says it’s a 30- to 40-hour process before bringing the final piece to the interviewee. “My priorities in terms of audience, my first is really the people in the book,” Lee says. “That they will be proud and pleased. And then the general Vineyard public, and then the general public. I want to make sure it captures the person’s voice. I edit, of course, but I don’t change people’s words.
“I love doing the interviews, getting to meet the people and hear their stories. To me it’s such a powerful experience. I love people’s generosity in sharing their stories.” Lee masterfully makes sure that each person’s personality and voice shines through. And if you can get to the museum’s accompanying exhibit, which runs through August 11, you’ll get the extra delight of actually hearing audio excerpts of the people in it.
For Lee, what’s most important about “Vineyard Voices” is for us “to get a sense of the richness of the community. There are many communities on Martha’s Vineyard. I also hope that these stories will help people both remember and be more aware of people who make up the quality of life here. I think if we know things about the past, it can help us make better decisions in the future.”
“Vineyard Voices Three: Words, Faces and Voices of Island People,” interviews and portraits by Linsey Lee, published by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, is available at the museum’s shop, 151 Lagoon Pond Rd., Vineyard Haven. The accompanying exhibition will be up through August 11, 2019.
Linsey Lee always welcome suggestions for people to interview, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.