Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee is a man of many and varied interests. Be it the common orange, Russian dissident paintings or portable nuclear bombs, his fascination with items exotic and commonplace leads the reader into corners of the world he or she might never otherwise explore. In his latest work, The Founding Fish, McPhee lures his readers into the world of Alosa sapidissima, the shad, a fish that has entranced and confounded anglers (McPhee included) for years. As is the case with most of McPhee's work, his subject is studied from many angles. Thus, he presents us with a history of the shad through the ages, the role of the shad in American history (there is anecdotal evidence that Washington's troops had shad and precious little else to eat at Valley Forge), catching, or more precisely, trying to catch shad, and last but not least, cooking the shad. An appendix offers several baking suggestions for the fish, a couple of which sound delectable.
McPhee spends time with ichthyologists, anatomists and fish behaviorists in locations as disparate as Pennsylvania and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He also learns the art of making the complex darts used to catch the fish. More than any time in recent memory, McPhee has imbued his writing with humor, much of it self-deprecating. His lack of proficiency at landing shad does little to cool his ardor. He regularly fishes from shore, from his Kevlar canoe and from the boats of friends and acquaintances as absorbed with the fish as he is. As usual, McPhee does a marvelous job of populating his tale. There are numerous forays into the lives of the people connected with his quest, as well as short side trips into the motivations that attract otherwise normal folks to the clan of the shad.
It is to McPhee's credit that he can take such an arcane topic and make it interesting, even compelling, to the casual reader. He provides sufficient data to suit the scientists among his readers, while writing in an easy conversational style that makes the rest of us want to sit at his feet and say, Tell me a story.