(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his twenty-sixth book, John McPhee profiles a species of fish, the American shad–Alosa sapidissima—and dozens of men and women who fish for shad, biologists and ichthyologists who study shad, environmentalists who seek to preserve shad habitat, and others including several of McPhee’s own ancestors. This book, like his famous “geological” text, Annals of the Former World (1998), provides in equal mixture the anecdotal and the technical, the scientific and the affective, a technique that in McPhee’s hand ensures lively and informative, if at times challenging, reading. Many of its most delightful passages provide detailed, lyrical descriptions of historically important shad rivers such as the Delaware and the Connecticut, the Hudson, the Schuylkill, the Susquehanna, and others. Typically, he also provides passages dense and rich with the important scientific exposition based on work done in the twentieth century by ichthyologists to reveal the details of the species’ life cycle and the pernicious effects of dams and pollution on it. Much of the book is likewise devoted to detailed descriptions of McPhee and others in the water catching—or trying to catch—shad and preparing and eating this most savory fish. Some readers may view his confession that he is a “meat” fisherman as paradoxical coming as it does at the end of his love song to the shad. The book as a whole reveals the enormous importance of the shad to the history of the country, and the intriguing complexity of the shad’s sensitivity to the ecology and health of rivers.

Ever curious about the natural world and humankind’s interactions with it, McPhee deepens his (and his readers’) understanding of the shad through research, interviews, and participant observation. The chapter titles reveal both their content and McPhee’s attitude toward his subject and create a subtle and satisfying rounding of his work. In the first chapter, “They’re in the River,” McPhee puts his readers in the river, in a johnboat with himself and two companions, Ed Cervone and his son, Edmund Cervone, on the Delaware River between New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Lambertville, New Jersey. Toward the end of winter, shad, which are schooling ocean fish during most of their adult life, begin their run upstream mostly to their birthplaces to spawn and complete the life cycle. As they begin their move, the word goes out by e-mail and telephone, radio and television, that “they’re in the river,” and fishermen appear on the river in congregating numbers, hoping to catch a share of this delectable, savory if bony, and historical fish. The river is thus crowded below the surface with (in most years) vast numbers of shad. It is also crowded on the surface and along the banks with huge numbers of fishermen, especially at places such as dams or serious rapids that cause the fish to “school up.” McPhee memorializes such expert shad fishers as Buddy Grucela and Gerald Hartzel, celebrating (and perhaps envying) their skill at catching shad.

The other chapters continue McPhee’s postgraduate course in shad. McPhee buttresses or explains his personal observation of the fish, its history, and its habitats with testimony and analysis from “visiting” scholars and with textual references. For example, chapter 2, “A Selective Advantage,” reveals his typical strategy when he allows Boyd Kynard, field biologist and director of the S. O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, to explain (between casts and catches) what a shad’s scale reveals through chemical analysis. One may learn its age, its specific place of origin, where it did its growing, and why it behaves the way it does, including literally stopping to study a strange riffle or even dying of fright at times. Because they are a schooling fish, when one stops, all (or nearly all) will stop, too. Swimming together in a huge school has hydrodynamic advantages; like bicyclers in a pack, the fish draft each other and thus, as a group, go farther faster using less energy. However, the selective advantage turns out to go, in Kynard’s view, to those fish who get farthest upstream to...

(The entire section is 1696 words.)