BOOK REVIEW : Conscientious Chronicle Hums Along, but Doesn’t Ever Sing : THE COAST A Journey Down the Atlantic Shore <i> by Joseph J. Thorndike</i> St. Martin’s Press;$19.95, 233 pages


Sometimes a reporter thinks he or she is finished writing a newspaper story. But then an editor will say, only half in jest, “Now make it sing.” They’re discouraging words because you’ve made the phone calls, you have the facts and now your boss wants you to be inspired.

Those words came to mind while I was reading Joseph J. Thorndike’s account of traveling the East Coast from West Quoddy Head, Me., to Key West, Fla.

“The Coast: A Journey Down the Atlantic Shore” hums. It speaks informatively in a low voice; sometimes it whistles; but it doesn’t ever sing.

Thorndike, editorial director of the American Heritage Publishing Co., has written a conscientious, but never rapturous, survey of the contemporary East Coast. Thorndike, for example, lives in Harwich, Mass., one of the prettier places on Cape Cod. But he never explains the attraction Harwich seems to hold for him.


Thorndike, born in 1913, seems to be a reserved person. Unlike Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux or John Krich--writers with attitude who never fail to confess their mid-trip states of mind--Thorndike is not given to arias, and there’s no boasting or complaining. (One of Krich’s books bears the subtitle “Around the World in a Bad Mood.”)

Most mysterious about Thorndike are his references to a person named Jane, identified only as “my traveling companion,” a fact that made this inquiring reader wonder about love over 70.

Still, while few questions of human fate grip the reader, there is plenty of interesting detail and drama in these pages. Fifty years ago, for instance, lobster trappers could place their traps within sight of shore. Now, they have to set many more traps, sometimes 15 miles out.

“This is a coast,” Thorndike writes of Maine, “on which it was once possible to tell how well-off a schoolboy’s family was by looking into his lunch box. If he had a meat-loaf sandwich, his family was relatively affluent; the poorer children ate lobster.”


Chesapeake Bay, which has benefited recently from an effective cleanup campaign, is, “acre for acre the most productive source of seafood in the United States and possibly the world.” (The bay’s average depth is only 21 feet.)

Along the route, Thorndike provides some good leads for eco-tourists. Isle au Haut, part of Maine’s Acadia National Park, is unspoiled. And you should visit Cape Cod in October, the month Henry David Thoreau went.

Civilization, nevertheless, has taken its toll on the coast, Thorndike reports. “At the beginning of the 17th Century,” he writes, “a virtually untouched coast lay ready for the impact of the ax, the plow, the gun and, in time, the pile driver, the bulldozer, the cement mixer, the oil tanker, the sewer pipe, the pesticide, the plastic bottle, the dune buggy and the nuclear power plant.”

Thorndike’s heroes are those fighting the good fight and winning a few. He particularly admires the National Park Service with its seven Eastern national seashores, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which guards a string of refuges for migratory birds.

Between the lines, Thorndike provides a cautionary lesson for the West Coast, where the public already has one tremendous advantage:

More than 90% of the East’s 2,069 miles of coastline is privately owned. Fifty percent of California’s 840 miles is private, and the percentage is less for Oregon and Washington, with 453 miles of coast between them.

To preserve our protected lands, we might consider following the lead of Nantucket Island, which has a 2% tax on property transfers; the proceeds go to buy up more land along the shore for the public.

Our country made a major error on the East Coast, Thorndike believes, by not respecting the law of ancient Rome. According to the Romans’ Code of Justinian, “by the law of nature, three things are common to mankind--the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea.”