January 31, 2023



by Mark Hume (Graystone £18.99, 276pp)

Reading The Water is a book about fly fishing in Canada. A little niche? But beyond the joys of catching salmon and trout in British Columbia’s great rivers, it offers a profound and beautifully written account of the author’s boyhood and troubled family, of becoming a father himself, and the pride and the loss that parents feel when their children grow up and push themselves off into the flow of the world.

In other words, yes, Reading The Water is about fly fishing, but it’s also about life. Mark Hume started his love affair fishing at the age of seven, in a small mountain stream, ‘where I found a trout that always seemed to be waiting for me’.

Mark Hume started his love affair fishing at the age of 7, in a mountain stream. The writer taught that fishing required dedication and patience with nature

And fishing, he taught, required patience, skill, dedication and a certain humility towards nature: because one day she will determine that you catch nothing. It “promotes resilience and inner strength,” as many of our seemingly frivolous hobbies and pastimes might.

Its evocation of a Canadian childhood, blissfully pre-internet, most of which is spent in the wilderness, is enchanting – especially for readers of the UK’s smaller, tamer island. Hume grew up in a place called the Okanagan Valley, full of rich orchards. “We knew an old man who protected his cherry trees from kidnapping by firing shotgun shells loaded with coarse salt instead of buckshot.” ouch! Life was almost groundbreaking back then – and I doubt the fruit-stealing kids got much sympathy from their parents too.

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Just above the valley floor was Campbell Mountain, “home to rattlesnakes and burrowing owls.” “And once, in the moonlight, I looked out and saw a Canada lynx float by on cushioned feet the size of pillows, silent as snow falling on snow.”

Later they moved from the forests and mountains of British Columbia to the great plains of Alberta with its unforgiving winters. At the breakup of the spring, the river was “a runaway train, rattling and squeaking at the corners while cakes of swirling, filthy ice jostled in confusion.” The nearest neighbor was a mile away across the wheat fields.

READING THE WATER by Mark Hume (Greystone £18.99, 276pp)

And then his parents divorced. “I knew there was something broken and dangerous in the adult world, something hidden, like a piece of glass in the water.”

He later married and had two daughters, Emma and Claire; and like many children of divorced parents, he was determined to do better than his parents had done. Much to his delight, as children, his girls loved to come fly fishing with him.

Teaching them the lessons of the river, of silence and observation and taking just enough were some of the best things he did as a father, he believes – along with camping nights in the woods and learning about the hard yet somehow otherwise friendly laws by nature.

There were some memorable encounters: with bears, both brown and grizzly, and once an old Secwepemc Indian, hunting with a fishing spear.

In time – time passed by astonishingly fast – the girls were no longer children, but teenagers and then young women, on their way to college and careers.

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Meanwhile, his own elderly mother, also a lifelong nature lover, who never married again after her divorce, ended up in hospital and died in 2008.

“She had disconnected any electronic monitors attached to her and there was no alarm when her heart stopped.

‘The nurse found her with her hands folded on her chest, her face serene, as if she were lying in a forest valley. I think the last thing she heard was the morning choir. And as the deer walked into the woods, she followed, the ferns barely moving as she passed them.’

I thought this beautiful, elegiac passage would make the right end of this review. But then…

“When I finished the last draft of this book,” the author writes, “Emma and Claire announced they were both pregnant. They were due to give birth in the fall, just a few weeks apart.’

This is the right ending. And life is indeed a river.