Review

The Founding Fish

by John McPhee



"It has not been long since the Florida peninsula was under water.
Covered with sand, it is a limestone platform - like the Bahamas
platform, the Yucatan platform. Now that it is up in the air, its
topography and drainage patterns are somewhat bizarre. For example,
it has an east-west divide and a north-south divide. The shorter
one crosses the peninsula at the latitude of Tampa Bay. The longer
divide, running down the axis of the peninsula, is known locally as
the Ridge. Its high domains - the Apennines of Florida - rise to an
altitude of two hundred and forty feet. For a hundred miles,
oranges grow on the Ridge in a broad continuous ribbon."

If one had, by some fiat, to restrict all of John McPhee's writing
to one paragraph, this excerpt from THE FOUNDING FISH would be a
good representative example, something of a core sample of years of
excellent prose. The reference to the Florida orange crop in the
last sentence neatly encapsulates ORANGES, McPhee's epic 1967
writing on the classical, biological, economic and social history
of oranges, written in that startlingly crisp and literate prose
that is his hallmark. The discussion of Floridian geology is
evocative of his masterpiece, ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD, a
four-volume exploration of geology and the plate tectonics
revolution that won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1999. McPhee has
written the authoritative texts on a dizzying array of topics, as
varied as Alaska (COMING INTO THE COUNTRY), the merchant marine
(LOOKING FOR A SHIP), and Bill Bradley (A SENSE OF WHERE YOU
ARE).

THE FOUNDING FISH continues in this tradition. It is the definitive
work on the American shad. There are, therefore, only two groups of
readers who will be delighted by it; those who have heard of the
American shad, and those who have not. The latter group would
include, say, Southerners raised on catfish, those from the Western
trout streams, and the ice fishermen of the Northern Lakes. The
shad, like the salmon, is an ocean fish that swims into freshwater
rivers to spawn, and is therefore common only on the East Coast and
the West Coast.

Any further discussion of shad, and their ways, and their habits,
and their lifecycle, and their savory taste would here be
superfluous, if not downright rude. McPhee --- no slouch himself as
a shad fisherman --- knows shad and their ways. John McPhee knows
shad the way that Stephen Hawking knows physics, the way that Billy
Graham knows the Bible, the way that Nolan Ryan knows the fastball.
What he doesn't know, he has learned; the book is filled with
discussions, consultations, and fishing trips with people for whom
shad is a scientific study, a magnificent obsession, a way of
life.

The book is as wide-ranging as the shad itself. McPhee takes us on
expeditions to the Delaware River, the heartland of shad fishing,
to the furthest extremes of the fish's range in the Bay of Fundy in
Nova Scotia to the St. John's River in Florida. Along the way, the
reader is treated to in-depth discussions of the shad's habits, its
love life, its place in American history, and its place in American
cuisine. (McPhee likes his shad fillets broiled, with lemon
pepper.)

If THE FOUNDING FISH has a flaw, it is that it is not built around
a central compelling personality. McPhee describes shad fishermen
as unfailingly polite, and the people he talks to throughout the
book are certainly polite, but they are not the sort of people you
remember. Compared to the colorful geologists that play such an
important role in ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD, the shad experts in
THE FOUNDING FATHER are unassuming and quiet, almost
anonymous.

THE FOUNDING FISH is longer than other of McPhee's books. Partly
this is because it is so obviously a labor of love. Partly, also,
it is because there is so much information crammed into its pages
--- perhaps too much information --- especially in the chapter on
fish dissection. But readers seeking clear exposition in
crystalline prose about a topic on which they know nothing --- or
everything --- will find THE FOUNDING FISH to be an exquisite,
compelling experience.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on January 22, 2011

The Founding Fish
by John McPhee

  • Publication Date: September 10, 2003
  • Genres: Nature, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374528837
  • ISBN-13: 9780374528836