Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Last Fish Tale

Ok, let's start with a pop quiz. What was the most important American port for Nova Scotia fishermen during the late 19th century? New York? No, you need to think smaller. Boston? Nope, still a smaller community. The answer is the small Cape Ann fishing community of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Just take a look at some of the genealogies that are available at the Annapolis Heritage Society Genealogy Center and you will quickly see how many families have members who went to work in Gloucester. In fact, by the end of the 19th century, 80% - 90% of all Captains sailing out of Gloucester were Nova Scotians. It is for this reason, but not this reason alone, that I chose to read and review The Last Fish Tale (ISBN 978-0-345-48727-8).

Gloucester is the topic of Mark Kurlansky's new book The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town. As with most of Kurlansky's books, he has a very ambitious subtitle. I should state from the outset that I would consider myself a fan of Kurlansky's work. I have previously read and enjoyed his books Cod and Salt. As with these previous titles, I appreciate the author's ability to start with a single topic and develop a sweeping history.

Perhaps it was because I had read two of his earlier titles that I approached this book with a bit of trepidation. Looking at the title, the book looks like it may be a local history. I don't have anything against local history (just the opposite in fact, without local history, I don't have a job) but local history can often be limited in its scope. If you are not intimately involved in the topic, local history can be alienating. I shouldn't have worried.

Kurlansky traces the evolution and development of Gloucester in an easy and sensible narrative. We meet various historic people as well as some of the unique characters who have lived in the community. We also experience some of the triumph and heartache of a community whose livelihood is attached to the sea. Once he has laid the ground work of how this community has developed over the last 400 years, he uses it as a point of comparison to other fishing communities around the world. He also uses Gloucester as a case study for the ongoing failures in the management of fisheries. Throughout all of this, he also manages to weave in appropriate recipes for the topics he is writing about.

One of the elements of the book which I found fascinating was the struggle between fisheries and tourism development. These two uses of the community's ocean resources seem to constantly run into each other. Kurlansky also takes the time to compare Gloucester to similar communities who have wholeheartedly embraced tourism (while it is not mentioned, Annapolis Royal would be one of these communities). It is very interesting to see how this division between new money and traditional ways plays out in another community.

As I mentioned, I would consider myself a fan of Mark Kurlansky's writing. The Last Fish Tale is partially a local history, partially a recipe book, partially a lesson in art history, partially a treatise on management of the fisheries and, above all things, an homage to social diversity and the role that fishermen play in society.

All for now,

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