An Historical Novel
By John Gubbins
2012; Sweetwater Books; www.cedarfort.com
244 pages; paperback; $15.99
PROFOUND RIVER RESEMBLES NO other contemporary American novel that includes fly-fishing in a significant way. It’s all at once a remarkably researched historical fiction based on one of our sport’s earliest, most revered and controversial figures; a deceptively delicate story of grace and humor and grit; a meditation filled with religious ritual but suffused with more humanism than dogma . . . and a how-to still relevant to anglers today.
Just how author John Gubbins manages all this is a question I would answer with “I don’t know.” To that I would add, with admiration and as a caution “slowly, seamlessly, layer upon layer.” The plot’s major conflict appears around page 60; and it was mainly during my second read that I grasped how deeply Dame Juliana Berner’s keen observations of nature—of fish and falcons, and her interactions in their wild worlds—instructed and influenced the tactics she found not just necessary to feed her flock, but to survive the brutal politics rampant in medieval affairs of church and state. Without doubt, The Dame is both predator and prey.
She’s also the first woman author and illustrator ever published in English, the first best-selling author, who with her Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle provided “a fitting start to the proud tradition of English angling literature.” But in Gubbins’ hands that’s just a beginning. “The nun who invented fly fishing” (per the slightly breathless blurb on the book’s jacket) becomes a living character cut from the cloth of her own Treatyse, here sewn and embroidered by the author’s imagination. Wise and generous, stubborn and defiant, sometimes tragic, she is not without regrets. Above all, in Profound she is moral and mortal, a woman of depth determined to protect the world to which she has retreated to live out the end of her life.
No small task, that. Dame Juliana’s world is the Region of St. Albans, a dominion run for profit by Abbot William Wallingford, oligarch of a Church less spiritual than corporate: Imagine Narcissus in robes with real power over all he surveys. Wallingford has designs on the lands, income and independence of St. Mary of Sopwell Priory, the Benedictine convent where we first meet our 95-year-old prioress protagonist, Midnight of the Annunciation, March 25, 1477. The Dame is at that moment “shepherdess of twelve women and their souls,” and—shades of today’s news—an advocate for her 900-year-old order’s mission, here manifest by strict devotions and a commitment to serve the community Wallingford oppresses from every direction.
The night is particularly troublesome: She remembers the event of her father’s arrest when she was a girl—a shock she now understands was due not only to naïveté, but to deliberate refusal to contemplate reality and change, “Only because I wanted my life with my family to go on as it always had.” While the young Juliana supports her frightened mother with “soft words and empty optimism,” for her own solace she seeks elsewhere.
“Weeping, I wandered through the desolate great hall down to the lawns, our ponds, and the shallow clear stream where they fed. Hugging my knees, I sat down by a gravel run. The sun warmed me and dried my tears, and schools of barbel spawned at my feet . . . .
“All that spring I fixed my mind on the barbel,” keeping close watch on their habits, their patterns of feeding and preferred baits. “If I crept close, the shoals moved off, leaving huge wakes. If I sat quietly back . . .
the shoals returned feeding.” Much to the dismay of the manor cook, she fed these fish everything, even bits of cheese and meat, keeping detailed logs because
“. . . I found that when I write down what happens, it becomes real.” Chastised for the frivolity of her efforts, she becomes angry. “When my father dies,” she insists, “I will no longer be a child, but I will still fish for barbel.”
And watch. Observe and examine from every angle; record, learn lessons and take them to heart. The girl Juliana will not be shocked again, distracted from clear thinking by indulgent sentiment. She has learned to take little for granted, to test all assumptions in a time when shifts of seasons, the hatches of insects and trout can be trusted, but fortune may not. Deliberate assessments guide her, even her actions with those around her as she considers and rejects—with longing and sadness, but stark pragmatism—the advances of a man she cannot love in the times she lives.
That same deliberation, and the confidence that comes from that, continues to inspire and guide her throughout a long life, and manifests directly when logs turn into written words now admired through centuries. “What makes my Treatyse different from every other book about fishing is that it is fully proved,” she asserts in a rare moment of pride, with “Every proposition” tested over years. Indeed, she’s explored all “discordant notes,” such as why the results of good days did not repeat, discovering that “The something that changed from day to day was me,” her success or failure at hiding herself while stalking. “The flash of my fishing rod, my shadow creeping along the bank of river or pond, even the flash of my white hand searching for my satchel for fresh bait, all warned the fish, for they could see me or sense my presence nearby.” And when it comes at last to developing flies—Gubbins has her share credit with a priory seamstress—she is determined to distill a dozen patterns from hundreds she’s made. Beyond that minimalism, however, is a sensual and spiritual embrace of the process itself.
“Tying flies brings the composure of prayer. It is a composure that begins in the fingertips. The composure of angling is different, where equanimity comes through the eyes . . . tying flies begins in blindness. In tying a fly, the tier’s mind migrates to her fingertips and builds composure from their feel.
“What the fly tier’s mind feels is the tension of the thread. The making of the fly begins and ends in the tying on and tying off of silk thread. In between is the perfect tension . . . .”
As to Profound’s plot evolution, slow and tense, it turns. And as with angling, Juliana understands, the devil’s in the details; so it is in details that devils may be bested. Suffice it to say that she never shows a flash of slight white hand.
There’s realism in the conclusion, however, elaborated in postscripts of several kinds. The Dame was a woman of her time, sometimes tragic—a woman as alive, once, as the fish she pursued and the forces in place in a world that once existed. Gubbins’ intent was to create her in the flesh, through a fiction memorable and moving; and in Profound, I think, he writes his way to a triumph.
“Each new generation of anglers claims to discover Dame Juliana. They must do so because every generation also forgets her . . . because scholarship has turned her into a wraith. In the name of certitude, her critics have excised her personality from her works . . . . With no idea how she lived, it is near impossible to identify with her as a person, a necessary prerequisite for any piece of literature to have lasting impact.”
Seasons on the Flats
An Angler’s Year in the Florida Keys
by Bill Horn; Illustrated by Bob White
2012; Stackpole Books; www.stackpole.com
144 pages; hardcover; $24.95
Above all, Seasons on the Flats is an eminently readable book. It’s another kind of history, and a broad-ranging vignette of the quirky and fishy Florida Keys; also a when- and where-to, personal journal, and collection of advice from experts. Season’s rife with the kind of information curious anglers will appreciate before considering a trip to islands that still have magnificent fisheries, these laced with anecdotes about flats fly fishers amateur and now-iconic, and stories about assorted iconoclasts and rogues, some of whom angle well.
As to the last, what would you expect? According to Seasons author Bill Horn, this archipelago is also an end of the line of sorts, populated by “People looking for something different, not content to live a normal life on the mainland . . . .” Individualists, he means, who even when acting in concert display sly humor. Take, for example, what Horn describes as a “tongue-in-cheek episode” he considers “emblematic of the Keys culture.”
In 1982 the inhabitants of Key West, aka “Key Weird,” wearied by drug-policing practices (as Horn writes) “established an independent nation called the Conch Republic and seceded. Secession lasted only moments: the new republic promptly surrendered to the U.S. Navy and demanded millions in reparations and foreign aid.” The rebels also coined a motto: “We Seceded Where Others Failed.” (Only my guess, but I bet Jimmy Buffet played a pre- or post-revolution anthem for this.)
While that tidbit is included in Bill Horn’s 30-page introduction, the author really hits stride when he moves into the four-seasons sections of the book. Mercifully, none of these read like the PR efforts of a tourist association’s summer intern. Instead, they provide the kind of point-blank assessments an angler needs. There’s a lot to get excited about, but also acknowledgements like this: “Flats fishing really winds down in November . . . . Lowering sunlight and long shadows hamper sight-fishing and obscure the remaining fish that are hard to see even under good conditions.”
Guides, of course, are another issue. No surprise, but they’re a necessity for most, though not all, Keys fly-fishing. That’s partly due just to the wealth of opportunities. Not only are there shots at more species than the tarpon, bonefish and permit that provide Horn’s focus; but the fact remains there’s just a whole lot of water around these isles, subject to a galaxy of tidal conditions, winds, currents, migrations, the habits of predator and prey. Add to this weather that can turn foul fast and you’re looking at a lot of ways to succeed, fail or get into trouble.
That’s not all. Horn’s eye sees more than just fish, and opens up other possibilities: Lobster diving, shrimp chasing, flowers, the pursuit of excellent food. In all, I found a prevailing sense of “you can take this trip,” one way or another, “and should.” But near Seasons’ end the author asserts a caveat, part of which I excerpt below.
“Success on the flats is exhilarating. The quarry is challenging. When finally hooked, the bonefish, permit and tarpon are strong, dazzling fish. The bonefish’s speed is breathtaking, the permit’s tenacity is unmatched, and the tarpon is flat-out spectacular . . . . But the karmic scales do get balanced. The angler must endure fishless days. Long hours without seeing fish, let alone catching any, are part of paying your dues. If you require constant action, stay home. If you’re comfortable wearing a hair shirt, come on down; a bit of masochism is always welcome in a flats boat. An ability to derive satisfaction from observing and learning, while not catching a damn thing, might be the single greatest attribute contributing to the long-term success in the Keys.” ■
Books editor Seth Norman is the author of Meanderings of a Fly Fisherman and many other great reads. He lives in Bellingham, Washington, where he toys with local politics, smallmouth bass and chum salmon.
…No scholar, no critic, has disproved the existence of Dame Juliana . . . . What they have attacked is the story of her life. Thus the question is not, ‘Did she exist?’ . . . Rather the question is, ‘What sort of person was she?’