In Review: October 20, 1999

Angling for Stories

Fisherman Austin McK. Francis '56 didn't let his big book get away

Austin McK. Francis '56 is a storyteller. Surrounded by the mahogany bookshelves of Manhattan's Anglers' Club, the only place for fishermen grounded in downtown New York, he speaks deliberately and without pausing. There is much to tell. He has, after all, reached the culmination of nearly a quarter century's work. With the recent release of his third book on Catskill fly-fishing, an elegant pictorial volume called Land of Little Rivers, Francis has reached a point where he can finally say: "There will be no sequel." This has not been an easy place to reach.

A man who grew up in South Carolina and found boyhood playgrounds in the woods of Georgia and Virginia might seem an unlikely candidate to record the oft-debated lore of Catskill flyfishing. Francis, however, was caught early by the magnetism of the region. When Francis was a child, his father answered a curious ad that offered to exchange a buckskin jacket for any shirt that could serve as a pattern for Catskill-based seamstresses. The jacket remained branded on Francis's memory, a symbol of the rugged survival and uniquely American traditions of the region. When he came north to Princeton, he found himself drawn to the Catskills again by a North Carolina­based uncle's admiration for the celebrated Beaverkill River, a fisher's nirvana 110 miles from campus. A later $150 gift of fishing gear was all the impetus needed to convince the Southern boy to look north for his outdoor recreation.

For a man who basks in narratives-an English major, Francis is the Anglers' Club librarian and a member of a storytelling group in New York-fishermen's tales have an inevitable lure. "Some of the best stories are fishing stories," Francis explains, "but the tradition is that fishers never tell the truth." After helping legendary raconteur and fisherman Harry Darbee mine regional yarns to produce Catskill Flytier ( Lippincott, 1977) and later writing Catskill Rivers (Lyons, 1983), Francis was driven to revisit the subject two years ago. Though he cribbed some of the research and material from his former works, the project grew and became a dominating passion. In three parts, the book traces the rivers' courses, marks the development of American rods, reels, and flies, and chronicles the region's heritage. Each part is painstakingly meticulous and precise. "It takes somewhat of a masochist to go on and on and on, obsessing about something," Francis says now. "It's a huge project, and I really became quite compulsive."

For two years he worked full time on the project, putting the corporate communications consultancy he founded in 1963 largely on hold. This approach befitted his lifelong love of books and fishing. While in the Navy, Francis worked so diligently on the fleet's yearbook that he was eventually stationed off the ship in Tokyo for months so that he could secure a printer for the publication. If his passions dominate his life, it is fortunate that Francis and his wife, Ross, fell in love with fishing at the same time. In addition to time spent in their Beaverkill Valley home, recent vacations have included a fishing trip to Alaska. With his consultancy as his livelihood and fishing as his passion, Land of Little Rivers became his vision.

Imagining a large-format book bursting with color pictures, Francis needed to find a photographer to bring his concept to vibrant reality. When an adviser introduced him to Enrico Ferorelli, a photographer whose clients included National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Vanity Fair, Francis thought he had met his man. When Ferorelli pulled out an aluminum case containing the waders, rod, vest, and fishing hat he never traveled without, Francis was sure.

Ferorelli proved the visionary Francis sought. Hired guides who led the photographer through the region's maze of rivers, creeks, and reservoirs were required to bring a variety of shirts and hats each day-nearly every water shot contains a variously attired fisherman to ensure the picture is not merely a sterile river scene. In taking 775 rolls of film, Ferorelli was as detailed, precise, and obsessed as Francis could have been.

Though Francis says writing has been his "hobby," he is a seasoned author who, besides the Catskill books, has written two texts on the game of squash. His past works, however, were published by other firms. For Land of Little Rivers, just released by his own Beaverkill Press, he was author, creative director, and publisher.

"I had to have total control over everything," he says. He describes the debates with printers, the wrangling over control of the book's design, and the need to secure funds to print the final product with the exasperated affection of a parent. Francis concludes: "I am now discovering what I wish I had been doing for at least 20 years- publishing." This conclusion may be the storyteller's happy ending.

-Hilary Roxe '97

Book briefings

A sampling of recent books of interest to Princetonians

Synagogues, by Samuel D. Gruber '77 (MetroBooks, $16.98). From the ancient ruins of Capernaum, Israel, to the "glass mountain" designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, architectural historian Gruber traces the evolutionary design of Jewish worship sites worldwide. His tour includes restored Eastern European synagogues as well as stops in Arab countries, India, and Asia. Gruber illustrates his points with photographs of interiors, exteriors, and artistic details, and includes a helpful glossary.

The Joy of Ballooning, by George Denniston '55 (Running Press, $19.98). Enthusiast Denniston covers everything you might want to know about hot air balloons, from giving a play-by-play of a ride to describing well-known attempts to circumnavigate the globe. Those who prefer to remain earthbound will find extensive information on festivals; risk-takers can preview the thrills of skydiving from a balloon basket or navigating over waterfalls. Denniston also provides information on clubs, museums, and Internet sites. Vivid photographs by a variety of contributors capture the excitement of this exhilarating sport.

The Many Faces of Mata Ortiz, by Susan Lowell *97 et al. (Treasure Chest Books, $50). Since the 1970s, Mata Ortiz, a village in northern Mexico, has produced several generations of potters who are creating remarkable ceramic ware. Lowell and her fellow contributors chronicle this flowering art movement from its origins to today. Profiles of the more than 300 potters currently working in Mata Ortiz, with explanations of their distinct styles and photographic examples, are included. A chapter on the technology behind the handmade work using ancient, humble materials fosters an appreciation of the work. Lowell's husband, Ross Humphreys, took some of the photographs for the book.

Secondhand Chic: Finding Fabulous Fashion at Consignment, Vintage and Thrift Stores by Christa Weil '82 (Pocket Books, $15, paper). Clothes-hounds alert: Become a connoisseur of high-quality goods, educating yourself on the feel of fabrics and the particulars of pockets and seams. Stop being a slave to couture labels and develop your personal style. Weil, who exuberantly shares tips she gleaned over a two-year period observing how French women shop, promises fashion nirvana to those who follow her upbeat advice and rules of resale. She also divulges her favorite shopping haunts in Paris, Geneva, and Amsterdam.

Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, by Scott E. Casper '86 (University of North Carolina Press, $19.95, paper). Long before People magazine existed, Americans had a voracious appetite for biographies, according to Casper, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno. In the 19th century, the genre's many forms-memoirs of pious women, patriotic narratives of statesmen, and "mug books" that collected accounts of Midwestern farmers' lives-helped shape the American concept of character. Casper plumbs why these stories were so popular and what part they played in American culture from the viewpoints of critics, readers, editors, and authors.

A Public Peace Process: Sustained Dialogue to Transform Racial and Ethnic Conflicts, by Harold H. Saunders '52 (St. Martin's Press, $45). Saunders seeks peaceful communities. He argues that changing relationships between groups who distrust each other can come about through dialogue, reflection, and imagining a common vision. His book outlines a five-stage process for dialogue and gives three in-depth examples of communities who weathered the process. Saunders's own experience as a former member of the White House National Security Council staff and assistant secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, as well as his work on the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, informs the book.

-Maria LoBiondo

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