It’s easy to see the green-scaled bass on the cover of Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey and think, “Oh, another fishing book.” But it is far more than a paean to the fishing life.
Growing Gills is rife with vivid descriptions of author David Joy’s childhood trips to the North Carolina coast, where his grandmother, the greatest angler he’s ever known, mentored him. It also includes adolescent forays in the southern Piedmont and adventures in his beloved Appalachian trout streams. In these evocations of North Carolina’s wilderness, Joy’s prose shines and gives a memoir’s greatest gift: It allows the reader to enter the writer’s life. If you love Appalachia, immersing yourself in Growing Gills is the next best thing to dipping in a cold mountain stream.
From fly tying to casting to spending time with family, Growing Gills covers a lot of ground, but passion for the natural world and a down-to-earth voice keep the book from sprawling. In Joy’s ambitious moments, he uses fishing stories to move into philosophical terrain, pondering his heritage and wondering if humans can revert to a state of wildness. As the book proves, the act of fishing, being the predator in search of another living thing, brings the human closer to the natural world from which some people feel separated. It is this separation that Joy, through fishing and writing about place, seeks to heal. With Growing Gills, he has made a strong start.
Bright Mountain Books. 2011, 196 pages, trade paperback, $16.