Vineyard Voices: Words, Faces and Voices of Island People.
MORE VINEYARD VOICES: WORDS, FACES AND VOICES OF ISLAND PEOPLE. Interviews and Portraits by Linsey Lee. Edgartown, MA: Martha's Vineyard Historical Society, 2005. 331 pp. Hardbound, $59.95; Softbound, $33.95.
Linsey Lee has been interviewing and photographing older residents of Martha's Vineyard Island since 1982. Vineyard Voices and More Vineyard Voices is a two-volume archive of that work published under the auspices of the Vineyard Oral History Center of the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society. Vineyard Voices (volume one) contains edited texts of seventy- five interviews done through 1998 with the greatest concentration of narrators born between 1910 and 1915. More Vineyard Voices (volume two) contains edited texts from seventy-nine interviews conducted between 1999 and 2004, with the greatest concentration of narrators born between 1920 and 1925. Nineteenth century Martha's Vineyard has a strong presence in the first volume; and the first half of the twentieth century and World War II have a strong presence in the second. The edited text of each interview runs between two and three thousand words, two to three pages in each handsome oversize (9" x 12") book. A large (6" x 9") photographic portrait of each speaker artfully complements each text. Vineyard Voices material has been used in public displays, radio programs, and in a documentary film currently in production. Tapes and transcripts will be available at the Historical Society Library.
In the introduction to both volumes, Linsey Lee writes that her work seeks to preserve the history and heritage of the traditional Vineyard lifestyle. Because the island was relatively isolated during the first half of the twentieth century, she can do that by recording the memories of those that remember "how it used to be," and "those few islanders who continue to live their lives in a traditional way" (vol. 1, xvi). Over the course of both books, Lee's work thoroughly documents a variety of traditional Vineyard lifestyles based on respect for land and water.
In her selection of speakers for the books, Lee chose ordinary people, although Vineyard Voices includes novelist Dorothy West and photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. Lee is faithful to the demographics and geography of the island. The six towns of the Vineyard are represented: Vineyard Haven (Tisbury), Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, West Tisbury, and up-island, Chilmark and Aquinnah (Gay Head), with the personality of each town revealed. There are more men than women in the first book, and the opposite is true in the second. Members of minority groups are well represented: Vineyarders of Portuguese ancestry, Wampanoags (Native Americans) in Aquinnah, Afro-Americans in Oak Bluffs, a small number of Jews, the deaf community of Chilmark in Vineyard Voices, and soldiers stationed on the island during World War II in More Vineyard Voices. Vineyard Voices has a better balance of speakers than More Vineyard Voices in which Chilmark residents and islanders of Portuguese descent seem overrepresented and Afro-Americans seem underrepresented.
In both volumes, Lee never shies away from including examples of discrimination and bigotry experienced on the island. For example, middle-class African-Americans in Oak Bluffs, well enough off to summer on the island, are still subject to discrimination and prejudice. Class differences are acknowledged but not pursued. As a summer resort, the biggest gulf on Martha's Vineyard is between the summer people wealthy enough to afford summer homes and islanders making a living through fishing and agriculture.
The oral histories in Vineyard Voices and More Vineyard Voices are portraits of lives that follow the rhythm of the island and its seasons and provide a wealth of information and comprehensive view of a variety of traditional Vineyard lifestyles. Some islanders recall their childhoods on farms; others recall life at sea, in such pursuits as whaling, sword fishing, even rum running. The number of descriptions of the annual agricultural fair in West Tisbury and of Illumination Night on the campgrounds in Oak Bluffs offer good examples of how Lee uses a multiplicity of viewpoints to bring alive important aspects of traditional life on the island. Additionally, there are many "how-to's": how to make butter, how to collect and stack hay, how to cut, store, and sell ice, how to run a milk delivery business and a co-op, how to land a swordfish, even how to train and drive oxen (and reasons why they are superior draft animals).
The narrative structure of the 154 interviews has a general formula. The speaker begins by telling how she, he, or the family came to the island. Many narrators are from families that arrived in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. The speaker recounts childhood, providing plenty of information about food, clothing, housing, work, play and the routines of daily life, including the absence of plumbing and electricity. The speaker proceeds chronologically into adulthood, often spotlighting a pivotal event where island heritage influenced personal growth and the pursuit of a passion or career. Before the interview wraps up, the speakers usually make a comparison between the Vineyard then and the Vineyard now. They close by explaining what they value most about the Vineyard. The better interviews feature a single theme or topic running throughout. A good example included in volume two is the moving story of Camp Jabberwocky, a camp for handicapped children, told by founder Helen Lamb. The few colorful interviews start out like that of island "legend" and naturalist Craig Kingsbury: "What skunks? I didn't bring any skunks to the islands, Sweetie" (vol. 1, 282).
Vineyard Voices and More Vineyard Voices achieve Linsey Lee's goal of preserving traditional Vineyard lifestyles, but the books could be made more useful to general readers and oral historians. Both volumes cry out for an introductory essay to provide a historical and sociological context which would help the reader understand the individual interviews. More biographical information about the narrators, perhaps in an appendix, would also be helpful. The inclusion of basic demographic statistics would be enlightening. It was not until well into the second volume that I learned the year-round population of the island was 5,000 in 1950. Better organization would have eliminated some overlaps. Finally, there is no order in the way the interviews are sequenced. They follow each other randomly. The absence of an overall structure and the weakness of the underlying context make the collection of interviews in these volumes more like a jig saw puzzle than a mosaic. Still, Linsey Lee is an impressive practitioner of oral history who has assembled a beautiful and passionately created archive which preserves a variety of traditional Martha's Vineyard Island lifestyles. Community oral historians everywhere can marvel at her achievements and learn from her books' shortcomings.
North Shore Community College
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|Title Annotation:||More Vineyard Voices: Words, Faces and Voices of Island People, Interviews and Portraits|
|Publication:||The Oral History Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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