Lauded as a "fishing classic" (The Economist) upon its publication in hardcover, John McPhee's 26th book is a braid of personal history, natural history, and American history, in descending order of volume.
McPhee is a shad fisherman. He waits all year for the short spring season when delicious American shad -- Alosa sapidissima--leave the ocean in hundreds of thousands and run heroic distances up rivers to spawn, and he "fishes the same way he writes books, avidly and intensely. He wants to know everything about the fish he's after--its history, its habits, its place in the cosmos" (Bill Pride, The Denver Post).
McPhee recounts the shad's cameo role in the lives of George Washington and Henry David Thoreau. He fishes with and visits the laboratories of various ichthyologishs, including a fish behaviorist and an anatomist of fishes; he takes instruction in the making of shad darts from a master of the art; and he cooks shad in a variety of ways, delectable explained at the end of the book. Mostly, though, he goes fishing for shad in various North American rivers, when he stands for hours in stocking waders and cleated boots, or seeks pools below riffles and rapids in a canoe. His adventures in pursuit of shad occasion the kind of writing--expert and ardent-at which he has no equal.
It has been frequently said of John McPhee that he can interest readers in anything that catches his attention. The American shad--a species beloved of sportsmen since George Washington--provides the remarkable focus of The Founding Fish, its every specimen carrying its autobiography within its scales and coursing through the water routes of U.S. political history.
Shad, which dwell in both fresh and salt water, are the aquatic heralds of spring, making their annual entrance into North American freshwater bays and swimming upstream heroic distances to spawn in the headwaters of rivers, returning, if exhaustion is survived, with their young to roam the wide ocean for the rest of the year. McPhee begins the journey, appropriately, in the Delaware River, the only major eastern river never to have been dammed, which makes it a favorite of fish hypersensitive to abnormal disruptions of current. An innate wariness of change makes the shad a particular challenge for fishermen and a perfect lens for McPhee's broad investigation into natural history and early American life.
McPhee profiles and travels with a fish behaviourist, an aquaculturist, and several fly fishermen, discussing the ethical matters of tidal power and catch-and-release campaigns, all the while telling the story of the increasingly revelatory role that shad has played in the history of the continent. He follows and studies the fish from Maritime Canada to the Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo in Alabama, uncovering its unique connections to Thoreau, Thomas Eakins, and John Wilkes Booth.
In The Founding Fish, McPhee navigates the most formative ideas and eras of a nation and proves again that nature is the best record of and entry into human drama--a drama that is as well-searing as the recipe that closes the book.
WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING:
"A blue chip tour of the American shad." --Kirkus Reviews
"Under McPhee's close eye, everything about this fish is fascinating." --William Moody, The Christian Science Monitor
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
John McPhee is the author of 26 books, including Annals of the Former World, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1965. His previous book, Annals of the Former World, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1999. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.