To begin with, the day I received my review copy of Danielle Henderson’s Tales from Fish Camp (AiT/Planet Lar), my first thought was a heartfelt, “What the hay?” In place of the expected graphic novel or collection of comics-related essays was this slim book of prose about “A City Girl’s Experience Working in An Alaskan Fishing Village.” A fishing village? Sounded like one of the lesser episodes of Malcolm in the Middle (Francis finds a new job in the frozen tundra!), so I’ve gotta admit I was plenty skeptical reading this smallish (126 pages – but there’s a lotta white space between chapters) tome.
The book recounts Henderson’s seven months working in the frontiers of Alaska for a fishery during its two big seasons (herring and salmon season). She takes the job out of a desire to see Alaska “at its most raw,” and pretty much gets her wish. Working in fish camp is a grueling experience of six hours on/six hours off/six hours back on shift life, while her first accommodations are so grungy that she refuses to take her boots off even when she’s taking a shower. Heading into Anchorage between seasons to interview prospective fish campers, she finds herself hearing the life stories of a series of parolees. (“I was legally restricted from asking specific questions,” she notes, “but there was no need – most of these guys volunteered the juicy tidbits.”) When there is an accident in the plant, it’s her responsibility to take the victim into the local clinic – a task which entails first seeking out an available set of working wheels.
Not a job – or a place – for wimps, in other words. In one of the book’s most memorable chapters, our heroine has to fend off a drunkenly deranged co-worker who has broken down the door of the bathroom where she’s been showering; in another, she leaves the office late at night, only to stumble onto two bears rummaging through trash that’s been thoughtlessly left in the boatyard. Henderson describes each of these incidents in a chatty voice: it’s easy to imagine each of ’em being recounted as a segment on This American Life, only with a trace more description to fill in the time allotted. Each chapter’s bite-sized, two to four pages typically, and the approach keeps you reading longer than you might’ve initially intended. (“Oh, just one more – it’s only three pages long!”) I zipped through the book over the course of a night, not in one sitting, but picking it up and ripping into four or five chapters at a time.
And, despite my initial skepticism (and momentary puzzlement over what the appearance of this book said about predominately comics publisher Larry Young’s longterm plans for AiT/Planet Lar), I found Danielle Henderson to be an amusing raconteur, even if she can be a little skimpy on the detail and story follow-through. (When she breaks her thumb while working the line, for instance, she tells us that she just duct taped her thumb to her hand and carried on with work – but we never learn if there were any longterm consequences from this act.) If nothing else, though, this book has given me a whole new perspective on that jar of creamed herring I bought for the holidays. . .