Beach Reading

By Cornelia Dean '69 / January / February 2005
May 3rd, 2007

The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket by Paul Schneider ’84 (Henry Holt & Co., 400 pages, $27.50).

I think I was assigned this review by mistake. I have written a book about erosion and land use, and from the cover of Paul Schneider’s The Enduring Shore – with its sweeping photograph of the north shore of Martha’s Vineyard set above a tight Nantucket harbor scene – the book looks as if it will be a discussion of land at the margin of air and sea. And in a way, it is. Once upon a time, Schneider writes, the lobes of the Laurentide ice sheet scraped across the mountains of northern New England, depositing the raw material for Cape Cod and the Islands at what is now the edge of the sea. Those deposits, which have been worked and reworked by water and wind ever since, shape the landscape we know today.

But The Enduring Shore is really an engaging story of the Cape and Islands, and of the people who lived there. Schneider starts with the area’s first settlers – Indians who cleared the land with fire and hunted its creatures with the same greed we condemn in European Americans today. He then moves on to its settlement by Europeans (many of whom were shocked to be greeted by Indians who had already learned English from European fishing crews) and their expansion out from Plymouth. Finally, he takes us through the region’s role in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and ends with the rise and fall of whaling, the industry that brought so much money and lore to the area.

Schneider has a gift for plucking fascinating anectodes from the tides of history. For example, early European settlers, he tells us, were a scrawny lot compared to the Cape’s native inhabitants, who were a taller, more robust people with longer lifespans than the puny Europeans who would displace them. Then there’s the Jonah-style tale of a man who fell into the mouth of a wounded sperm whale, only to be rescued later, unconscious, when the whale was taken. To hear Schneider tell it, the early settlers were quite a bunch, engaging in everything from collaboration with the British during the Revolutionary War to intimate relations with farm animals.

Schneider calls his book "a retelling and reorganization of tales others have told before." His emphasis, it seems, is not on producing a scholarly work but rather on telling a compelling tale. The result is a thoroughly engaging book that also includes digressions about his not-always-successful efforts to navigate the region’s shorelines by kayak. If the book’s jacket had more accurately suggested its contents, The Enduring Shore would undoubtedly have gone to someone else to review.

And I might never have had the pleasure of reading it.

Cornelia Dean is science editor of The New York Times and author of Against the Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches, which was reviewed in the November/December BAM.

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January / February 2005