July 16, 2014

In his first novel, local author brings a bygone era to life


A lot of people say they’re going to write a book one day, but not a lot of people actually do it.  Of those who do, few actually get published, and even fewer sell out of their first printing in just 25 days. 

“Well,” said Elvin Hooper, smiling with a youthful exuberance that belies his 65 years of age, “I guess I’ve just always been under the illusion that I was an author.”

Hooper is the author of “Chicamacomico: How it was back then,” and on a recent mid-summer afternoon, in between sips of sweet iced tea, genial conversation, and detours into tangential stories, he discussed why he wanted to write the book, how he made it happen, and what he hopes will come of it.

It all started several years ago, when Hooper approached Gee Gee Rosell, the proprietor of Buxton Village Books, with a big idea and some early, rough pages. Rosell loved the content, saw the potential, and told Hooper that if he would hire a professional editor, she would help him get his book published.

Hooper heeded her advice, and, armed with a writer’s most essential tools—a champion, an editor, a laptop, and, most importantly, a head full of ideas—he set out to finish what he had started.

After years of writing, editing, formatting, rewriting, and editing again, the work was done. The book, which was published by Chapel Hill Press, was officially released on May 28, with a signing and reception at Buxton Village Books.

“Chicamacomico” chronicles life on Hatteras Island in the days before the bridge, and the road, and the tourism. It takes place in a time when lighthouses and life-saving stations weren’t just attractions, fishing and hunting weren’t mainly for sport, and the weather was much more than just a beach-day metric—or fodder for a 24-hour news media cycle.

And if anyone has the credentials to write a novel about the way Chicamacomico used to be, it’s Hooper. His island roots run deep.

He was born and raised in the village of Salvo -- historically named Clarks -- and is a lifelong resident of Hatteras Island. He has worked as a building code inspector for Dare County, a carpentry teacher at Cape Hatteras Secondary School, and has served as a director for the Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative for more than 20 years.

For 15 years, he served as Surfman Number Four in the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station's reenactment team for the breeches buoy drill, and he currently still works full-time for the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry operation as a night watchman and teaches carpentry part-time at the high school.

If that wasn’t enough, he also plays in a classic rock band called—what else? —Chicamacomico.

Though Hooper, who was born in 1949, was too young to have actually experienced the Chicamacomico of which he writes, he was not too young to have listened to the stories of those who had.

“Most of the material has been passed down through stories told by old-timers around local gathering places,” Hooper writes in the prologue. “I would seek out these gatherings and remain absolutely quiet, taking in their stories about the good old days.”

Hooper himself is quite the storyteller. Whether it’s a skill he acquired from listening to the old-timers or whether it is simply in his blood, he certainly has a knack for weaving a story together.

This particular story begins in Boston, in a Cape Cod-style home, not too far from Little Brewster Island, where Kristina Peterson is celebrating her 90th birthday in the company of her seven children, 17 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

The occasion coincides with the arrival of what will be a three-day nor'easter.  The celebration is winding down and the wind is picking up.  It’s a classic recipe for nostalgia, and when Kristina remarks that the weather reminds her of “down home,” her grandchildren beg her to share her stories of that place—which, of course, is Chicamacomico, the area that most of us now recognize as the tri-villages of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo.

Kristina lovingly obliges.

She shifted her pain-ravaged body in her wheelchair and let her mind drift back over the years. Thoughts of Barnacle, Hazel, and Cocoa began to flood her mind. A huge smile developed on her aged, weathered face, and she began.

Kristina’s island adventures start when she and her family—along with the colt she convinced her father to buy for her—board a ship in Charleston, S.C., en route to their home in Baltimore. Like so many others before it, the vessel fell victim to the infamous Diamond Shoals, and the passengers had to be rescued by the crew of the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station.

The book follows Kristina’s exploits on the island that eventually becomes her home, with the people who quickly become her friends and neighbors. It is a touching and funny and enjoyable story. The prose is simple, but rich and lively, and the voice is authentic and engaging.

And, it features a vibrant and original cast of characters, many of whom are inspired by Hooper’s own family. 

Kristina, for example, is based on Hooper’s only daughter, Kristina. Her best friends in the story, Stan and Shanna, are based on (and named after) Hooper’s actual nephew and niece. According to Hooper, Kristina’s father, Edward, is a kind of amalgamation of all the Hooper men, and Hazel, the fiercely independent, if slightly misanthropic woman who is known for her ability to work with animals and who becomes one of Kristina’s closest companions, is patterned after Hooper’s aunt, Lucy.

But even though the places that appear in the story are real, and though some of the characters and events featured in the book are based in fact, Hooper is quick to point out that the book is entirely fiction.  Kristina’s Chicamacomico—and the adventures she has there—are the product of Hooper’s imagination alone. 

Or, as he put it, “Most of it’s stuff I’ve just made up.”

It’s an important point for Hooper, who says he doesn’t want the book to be studied and scrutinized, but read and enjoyed.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what the island might have been like “back then,” pick up a copy of the book, grab your favorite drink, sit back, relax, and enjoy the story. 

Additional Information

Copies of “Chicamacomico: How it was back then” can be purchased at Buxton Village Books, as well as a variety of other locations on the island.

An e-book version of the text is available through the Buxton Village Books website: 

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