Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Book Review: The River Why

What separates a truly amazing book from an average volume? A great book creates scenes and images that you see clearly in your mind as if you are there with the characters, a part of the story. The best writings get inside of your soul and live there, making you look at the world in a new way, as if you too went through the experiences chronicled within. By these standards, The River Why is a terrific book. The River Why is the coming of age story of Gus Orviston. Gus is a fishing prodigy who chronicles the thousands of trout that he caught in his journal. Determined to dedicate his entire life to fly fishing, as a teenager Gus buys a log cabin on the fictional Tamanawis River.

Gus soon discovers that his utopian vision of 18 hours a day on the river is mind-numbing and soul-destroying, and he begins to search for other sources of fulfillment in his life. All sorts of interesting people come into his life, a veteran of the Korean War, a philosopher and hippie neighbors. He encounters death, searches for love, and all the while tries to find a balance between finding trout and finding himself.

It is probably no accident that my other favorite fly fishing book, A River Runs Through It, is also a story about more than fishing. In his autobiographical novella, Norman Maclean writes about fly fishing in Montana. His story is also a coming of age tale about brothers, family and loss. It was Robert Redford’s movie version of A River Runs Through It that first inspired me to pick up a fly rod, because I wondered if there was more to learn on a trout stream than how to catch fish.

Over ten years later, I have become a decent fly fisherman who can catch a trout when he is not accidently standing in the middle of a pool. But I have also discovered the other sides of fly fishing, the moments of solitude, peace and connection to nature that can happen on the stream.

During the long winter months when my fly fishing rod sits in storage, I am always looking for a great new fly fishing book to read. The River Why was an amazing find. What other good fly fishing books have you read?


Andy said...

Two good English books you should look for are “Rod and Line” by Arthur Ransome, and “A Fisherman’s Testament” by Bernard Venables. They both describe how the pleasures of fishing are so much greater than the catching of fish, and at their best when describing not fishing.

In “Rod and Line”, a collection of newspaper essays first published in book form in 1929,
Ransome starts on tackle-shops:

“The pleasures of fishing are chiefly to be found in rivers lakes and tackle-shops and, of the three, the last are the least affected by the weather. The sight of rods in a window brings a fisherman to a full stop as surely as the sight of a bridge. In such weather as we have been having, when fishing is all but impossible a fishing- tackle-shop has a magnetic power that can be felt over a considerable area. We are conscious, for example of a shop in the City Road when we are at the further end of Deansgate and of a shop in Moult Street while we are dodging trams at the corner of Albert Square.
These are the shops we know. But it is the same in strange towns. There too there seems to be a mistaken idea that the centre of the town is some Town Hall, or Public Library, or Square decorated with political gods in stone or bronze, when, if the truth were known, the whole town is grouped about some little shop where a man will find in the window, boots and pike tackle, Mayflies and flat-irons, and behind the counter a fisherman like himself. Let him go in there and he is in a strange town no longer. There, at least, he has the passwords and is allowed to taste the brotherhood of man. In these shops there is nothing but good will except towards polluters of rivers. Again and again I have gene into tackle shop in a strange town lonely and dispirited and come out blithe as a blackbird on his own lawn.”

He goes on:

“For there are two distinct kinds of visits to tackle-shops, the visit to buy tackle and the visit which may be described as Platonic when, being for some reason unable to fish, we look for an excuse to go in and waste a tackle-dealer's time. Of this the tackle- dealer is well aware. He knows, at once, as one of us comes through the door what kind of visit is intended. The man who looks at his watch, raps out his order in accurate detail, half a dozen each of Brunton's Fancy and Little Marryat with two casts tapered to 4X, is going grayling fishing and wants from the dealer nothing but efficiency. That other, a little shy, whose eyes wander from the rods in their khaki cases to the glass fronted cupboard of reels, from the artificial minnows to the flies, from them to the labelled boxes on the shelves, who modestly suggests that another customer shall be served before himself (to give him an excuse for staying longer in the shop, is in a different category, The one has come because he is going fishing. The other is there because, alas, he is not. The one wants tackle, the other a course of mental treatment. Such is the noble nature of tackle-dealers that in most cases he gets it.”

Bernard Venables, another newspaper-man, wrote his book during and in the aftermath of WW2. In this section, he describes an enforced stay in hospital:

“Though at all times the fisherman’s mind is apt to stray from more immediate things to thoughts of fishing, it is perhaps during illness that he most dwells upon it. The longer he is confined the more he sees not the medicine bottles, not the thermometer but the willowed banks he has known, the placid summer waters. He hears the slow sound of oars in rowlocks and the splash of water voles. His appetite for angling literature and tackle catalogues becomes insatiable. He begins to wonder if his illness will justify a convalescent holiday. From this stage he passes rapidly to making lists of the new tackle he will need to buy. On this list goes everything that any possible contingency of water and weather may make necessary. And, indeed, many that are not so strictly necessary. In his heart he knows that if he gets his holiday he will buy only a fraction of the list, but the making of it is a great happiness to him.”

best wishes,

Andy from Stratford-upon-Avon, England

Anonymous said...

I am currently reading Duncan's "The River Why" and am finding it equally fantastic.
Oddly, I've not been able to complete Maclean's book or even the peripheral short stories in his collection. I've seen the movie several times. It was a favorite ten years prior to my picking up a fly rod.
Thanks for your contribution.
Your blog is a bridge builder and I am qualified to say this because, I am a Methodist, which as everyone knows, "is just a Baptist who can read".

Sundogger said...

"The River Why" has been just about my favorite book for decades. And it's not the fishing aspect, because I don't fish. It's the humanity, the understanding we are part of the natural world, the understanding of other species. It's hard to be cynical reading this book.