Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Last Fish Tale by Mark Kurlansky

Since I chose to read Mark Kurlansky's The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town while Fiesta was raging in the streets of Gloucester, his Prologue was particularly enjoyable. While I was reading the book and later when I sat down to write the review, I could hear the screams and shouts and boat horns at Pavillion Beach as the pole walkers did pretty much what Kurlansky described in the book. But the Greasy Pole Walk takes place three days out of every year --- there's a lot more to Gloucester than those three days.


I'll get this out of the way first --- there are mistakes in the book. A few names are misspelled (Sicilian names, the families themselves have numerous variations on the spellings --- and I'm betting a guy named “Kurlansky” has grown used to names being spelled wrong). A few dates and facts are incorrect. But no one outside of Gloucester will notice these things. And then, of course, there is the opinion expressed by a few of the locals that, since Kurlansky is not a Gloucester fisherman what the hell right does he have to comment on the issues faced by Gloucester fishermen?


Okay, now that all of that is out of the way let's move on.


He begins with a brief history of Gloucester, its founders, early industry, and the naming of the town

which was pretty interesting. There are lots of books on the early history of Gloucester but since Kurlansky managed to cover it in three chapters I paid attention and learned a few things I didn't know. He talks about the development of the art colony here which I probably know more about than I do about the fishing business but he made a point I thought needed to be made --- that the art colony and the fishing business are symbiotic relationships. Without the fishermen the artists would be less inclined to come here to paint, and, as the fishing industry declines, more and more artists are saying they can't paint here anymore and go looking for new subjects. And, for many years, the artists helped support the fishing industry in a variety of ways not the least of which was bringing attention to the changing fate of the fishermen.


Kurlansky also includes a chapter on the writers who have come here. A subject close to my heart. It sometimes seems to me that every other person on Cape Ann is a writer of some sort and I swear there are as many unwritten books walking around here as there are people. In fact, the day after I finished the book, I ran into artist Marilyn Swift (whom Kurlansky thanks in his acknowledgments) in the market and we talked about the book. She said Kurlansky is coming back this summer to work on his next book --- it's Gloucester, I tell you. People come here and just have to write.


But my favorite part of the book was the last couple of chapters in which the author profiles a few other fishing towns --- in England and France --- facing the same problems Gloucester is. How do you keep the town alive and prosperous without ruining it as the fishing industry declines? There are, of course, no easy answers but the alternatives are frightening. To those of us who love Gloucester and have found here a place where we can live, work, and find inspiration the thought of the town turning into another precious bedroom community is too horrible to contemplate. And worse than that is the nightmare of a veritable “authentic fishing town” theme park where bus-loads of tourists arrive to watch “real” fishermen land a catch.


I've long complained about the growth of the obnoxious “reality entertainment” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) business in this country. People have become ever more alienated from one another and so distanced from authentic experience that they hunger for what is real or what is marketed to them as being real. Gloucester is real --- how do we keep it real without turning it into an object of entertainment? These are questions that Kurlansky asks, too.


Last night I was driving down Main Street headed for the fish pier when someone shouted my name. A friend was standing outside The Crow's Nest having a smoke so I pulled over and we gabbed for a few minutes. The Last Fish Tale was on my dashboard and she picked it up and looked at it. “Is this any good?” she asked. Yeah, I said, want to borrow it? “Naw,” she said. “I see him around town. Next time he's here I'll talk to him about it.”


That's Gloucester.

SEACHANGE: Review by Linda Greenlaw

Thanks for reading.


Note: This post originally ran on July 7, 2008. It is a frequently visited posts on this blog and is being repeated for those who have subscribed to our new feed service.

1 comment:

  1. Here I am, commenting almost a week later.

    Funny you should mention the Crow's Nest in this context. I have a friend out-of-state who says when she comes to visit, she wants to go to the Crow's Nest because she read about it in (yeah, you guessed it) The Perfect Storm. I have strongly resisted that idea and I couldn't really articulate why. God knows I spent many hours in my misspent youth in bars.

    You nailed it. It would feel like visiting a theme park version of Gloucester, watching the "quaint" residents. The people of Gloucester, for whom the terms "hardworking" and "struggling" are not mutually exclusive, deserve more respect.

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