W. D. Wetherell’s short story “The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant” was awarded the 1983 PEN Syndicated Fiction Prize and was collected in his 1985 award-winning The Man Who Loved Levittown. This coming-of-age short story is a perennial favorite of many English teachers because of the strong narrative as well as the quintessential challenge of a young teen finding his own voice. Wetherell is best known for his short stories and memoirs, which are often set on or near his favorite New England rivers. “The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant” is no exception.
One of the main themes of this story is that of sacrifice. The narrator, who is not given a name, is fourteen years old and in love with an older woman—his sixteen-year-old neighbor, Sheila Mant. He has a serious crush on her and is enthralled when she accepts his offer of a date. Sheila, however, is not so enchanted when the young teen suggests that they go on the date via the narrator’s boat. The narrator convinces Sheila that the boat is safe, but he is unable to persuade her to think highly of fishing, his favorite pastime. This is where the sacrifice comes in. Does he give up Sheila or the huge bass that has coincidentally snagged itself on the narrator’s fishing line? It is the largest bass the narrator has ever seen, and he probably will never find the likes of it again. But then, Sheila Mant is equally impressive. And it is impossible to have both, though the narrator attempts this for as long as he can.
Like many of Wetherell's tales, “The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant” is a page-turner. The story moves through a series of conflicts and their subsequent suspense as the narrator navigates between two of his strongest passions—catching the bass and catching Sheila Mant. Which one will he keep? Which one will he let go? Not until the last sentences are these questions answered, making the reader push through to the end of the story. Conflict is the backbone of good writing, and Wetherell is a master of it here.