In conversations with passionate and experienced grouse hunters, the name will crop up time and time again.
Those veteran, well-heeled hunters will say — often over a glass of brown liquor and in between debating the merits of fine and pricey shotguns — William Harnden Foster was one of a kind.
Artist, wordsmith, hunter, conservationist … and author of one of the American sport’s top editions, “New England Grouse Shooting.”
Earlier this year, Thomas Pero of Wild River Press in Mill Creek, Washington unveiled — with the help of Foster’s grandson, Jon Foster — a reprint of the classic book. Stretching 194 pages and featuring all of Foster’s original drawings, it’s sure to become a collector’s item among the latest generation of hunters who relish taking a bird on the wing, while hunting behind a well-schooled canine companion.
Pero, whose publishing house has previously printed “A Passion for Grouse,” said “New England Grouse Shooting” has always held high standing with him.
“In my judgement, as somebody who’s read and collected sporting and hunting books pretty much all my life, I just think it’s a near-perfect book for its genre,” Pero said in a phone interview. “It’s beautifully written — it’s lyrical, really — and it transports us, 75 years later, back to another era.”
Pero, who formerly lived in New England, said the book still resonates.
“For those of us who grew up shooting grouse in New England in many of those same environments, with the rambling stone walls and old apple orchards, the book transports us back to that era of nearly to the mid-20th Century, when grouse hunting was still a big deal,” Pero said.
The original version of the book was released in 1942; in a tragic turn, the author’s life work wasn’t published until a year after he died. William Harnden Foster suffered a heart attack while watching a sporting dog field trial in 1941.
That factoid is included in a companion brochure that focuses on Foster and his guns, which is included with each purchase of the book. Titled “The Magic of ‘The Little Gun,’” the brochure features photos of the Foster guns, as well as an introduction by Jon Foster and a touching essay by Maine’s own Art Wheaton, an admirer of William Harnden Foster.
“I wanted to bring [his death] up, because I wasn’t sure that even a lot of aficionados of “New England Grouse Shooting” were aware of that: He never held the book in his own hands,” Pero said. “And as a book publisher, that means a lot to me.”
In “The Little Gun,” Wheaton points out that William Harnden Foster had a formal art education at the same institution that produced N.C. Wyeth and others — Howard Puyule’s School of Illustration Art, also known as “Brandywine School.”
“Not only are the illustrations interesting and evocative, they also reveal a lot,” Pero said. “That self-portrait he did of himself as a kid, killing his first grouse, you can feel the kick [of the shotgun], as you look at the illustration. You can see the big puff of black powder smoke, you can see the kid sort of reeling back.”
William Harnden Foster’s hunting days spanned the 1920s and 1930s, as the U.S. was discovering bird hunting as a true sport, rather than just a way to put food on the table. As Pero points out, the author was among the leaders in the effort to introduce a conservation ethic to the masses, and lived his life that way. The game wasn’t about putting as many birds as possible in a coat pocket; instead, it was about the experience, and about shooting those birds the right way.
“He’s the perfect embodiment of that pretty rapid transition from the ‘frontier,’ if you will, when hunters and fishers took whatever they wanted, there were few game regulations, and they sold a lot of it and ate it themselves, ” Pero said. “In the course of one generation — his generation — they went to a highly refined sporting ethic, and in fact championed and invented much of it.”
“New England Grouse Shooting,” along with the companion brochure, can be ordered at negrouseshooting.com, or Pero can be reached with inquiries at (425) 486-3638.