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The Founding Fish by John McPhee

Review by Chase

the founding fish book cover

The Founding Fish by John McPhee is a well-written, engaging book packed with information about a seldom-discussed species of fish known as American shad, a small, anadromous species of fish that naturally dwelled near the East coast of America. McPhee fuses personal fishing anecdotes and interviews with experts with history and information to create a captivating collection of essays that highlight the significance of shad in our lives, as well as presenting facts on the opposite of the statement, describing how the damming of rivers and overfishing have heavily impacted shad populations. 

After one finishes reading the book, the first thought that will undoubtedly come to mind is “I read a 300 page book about some species of fish!?” However, the realization starts to set in that McPhee had bigger fish to fry than just shad. Rather than talk strictly about the biology of shad, the book provides an entirely new perspective on American history. In most of the minds of humans today, we think about our history as how our species have shaped the world around us.  This book shows us that nature is much more influential on us than we realize. The American Revolution is always told in terms of what humans did. During the catastrophe that was the winter in Valley Forge, classrooms will teach us that it was Washington’s bravery that pulled the revolutionary army out of sure defeat. However, after reading McPhee’s novel, one could very well argue that it was the shad’s valiant sacrifice which saved the continental army. John McPhee is a naturalist, so his book is filled with these intriguing perspectives. These views are not just a matter of McPhee’s own unbacked opinions. Every point that he makes is backed by pages of well-researched fact. His book, in addition to the rich historical information, has numerous interviews with renowned experts and highly experienced fishermen.

            You might believe that you would find yourself tired and bored after reading hundreds of pages of straight nonfiction historical facts and interviews. McPhee has thought of this as well. After several pages of information, McPhee will insert a personal fishing anecdote. Some of these will be stories of himself experiencing shad fishing first hand, while others will be about his trips with other local fishermen and his observations of their technique while constructing their character for the reader. This reminds the reader that the author is a real human with real experiences, as opposed to a formless narrator of dry facts. On one instance, McPhee, while on a boat with another fisherman, remarked that the dark red water bore a resemblance to Pepsi, to which the fisherman responded with “Don’t mention Pepsi-Cola. This is a pretty spot.” The fisherman’s ancestors happened to have developed the Coca-Cola company.

While these anecdotes are effective for some readers to keep their eyes on the page, they are not without their drawbacks.  A criticism for this style is that the subject matter of the book will switch frequently, which can be harder to follow. The structure of this book is unique in that it does not tell a single story and is not in chronological order, which can make it less engaging for readers that enjoy having a straight timeline in the novels they read. Furthermore, the stories themselves seem to share common themes such as learning techniques from experienced fisherman or descriptions of catching large shad. While exciting for the first few, they can start to get somewhat repetitive, and it may be more effective if there was more variance in the subjects of these anecdotes.

Despite this drawback, he still manages to captivate readers with his unique writing style, which is certainly another great aspect of this book.  McPhee has unique wittiness in his writing that keeps you reading. For example, he writes “Somewhere in the evolution of fish-eating in America there came a moment when the inconvenience of a mass of bones generally overcame the appeal of the flesh they supported.” These types of sentences incorporated into his writing will always catch your attention when you start to feel a little tired.

McPhee gives you history, anecdotes, personal stories, and interviews so that you are always entertained while your brain absorbs the plentiful information. No matter your experience or interest in the topic, it is probable that you will still find the read eye-opening and surprisingly entertaining.

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