Local bow hunter crafts his first novel

Sound of the String

“Sound of the String” grew out of a short story written by Brad Isham after his first visit to South Africa to experience wild game hunting, though not with a gun.

Inspired by what he learned about an unusual custom practiced by elephants and water buffalo, he wove his story about the askari, or guardian, assigned to accompany an elderly animal until its passing.

The Amissville-based author will talk about his bow hunting experiences and how they led to “Sound of the String,” his first novel, on Friday, May 11 as part of the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community’s (RAAC) “Second Friday at the Library” free lecture series. The talk starts at 8 p.m.

Isham portrays the majesty and great plan of nature through the thoughts of the ousted lead bull water buffalo, Dagga Boy, and the young “Ascari” bull. The novel is a good read from start to finish, with more than a few surprises along the way.

If you go . . .

Signed copies of “Sound of the String” will be available at the 8 p.m. Friday, May 11 lecture at Rappahannock County Library, and are also available in Warrenton at Rhodes Fly Shop and at Second Chapter Books in Middleburg (where Isham will also be signing books from 1 to 3 p.m. May 12).

The reader is transported, literally, with protagonist Gordon Bradford, from his home in Virginia where he custom-crafts longbows by hand, to the African bush where he hopes to bag a kudu, an antelope-like creature with long spiraling horns. The novel is autobiographical in terms of Gordon’s beliefs, philosophy, experiences and passion about traditional bow hunting.

“I’ve been to Africa twice with my wife, Amber, and we both have mixed feelings about it,” says Isham. “It’s a beautiful place with its natural resources and the land and the animals, but it’s also tragic. There is so much desperate poverty.”

Hunting, in Africa, as in many parts of the U.S., provides vital income to the local economy, but it also raises questions, both moral and ecological. The book touches on several issues: hunters who behave badly and/or irresponsibly; the very real problem of illegal game poachers and the dangers they pose; and the dynamics of the staff employed by legitimate hunting camps.

Brad Isham with several of his handcrafted longbows in front of the Amissville log cabin he shares with his wife Amber.
Amber Isham
Brad Isham with several of his handcrafted longbows in front of the Amissville log cabin he shares with his wife Amber.

The novel embodies the same stark contrasts and harsh realities as its setting. South Africa’s bush lands are very different, almost mystical with their exotic game and timeless traditions. Some of the best passages, notably Isham’s descriptions of the land and its occupants, resound with almost poetic elegance.  

The characters, Isham said, are composites based on people he met at home and in Africa. However, the animals portrayed in the book are the real deal – originals engraved in the author’s memories, along with the hunting experiences that pretty much parallel Isham’s own. Not many people go to Africa to hunt with bow and arrow, which defines the interaction between the American bow hunter, the professional hunter and staff at the bush camp, and the relationship between Bradford/Isham and the animals themselves.

“About 10 years ago I got started with traditional bow hunting and that’s when I started making my own,” recalls Isham. “I love woodworking and it really appealed to me to hunt with something I had made myself. My first bow was not so great, and I went through lots of trial and error – I think I made four before I had a bow I could feel comfortable hunting with.”

Isham turned to bow hunting because he felt unfulfilled by other forms of the chase. He learned that, for him, the kill is secondary to the experience; that a long bow requires great patience and critical accuracy; that he must have an animal well within range before he lets his arrow fly. All this is different from gun and crossbow hunting, and yet both require a hunter to track any animal that’s been wounded or whose will to live or flight instinct allows it to travel a great distance until felled by the mortal wound.

Isham’s approach is almost meditative, spiritual in an earthy way as well as quite expressive of the protagonist’s faith in his Christian God. Yet, his prayers are more than mere appeals to a higher power for a trophy. He pays tribute to the spirit of the animal taken and the bounty of all its parts, which are used for food and to make various products.

The novel also deals with the issue of apartheid, which ended about 20 years ago, though racial tension persists. The relationships between blacks and whites in the bush are essential to their survival, and the importance of responsible hunting. The plot also includes a sneaky love story: rather than include a spoiler here, you’ll have to read it.

Bradford might be considered a bit of a Renaissance man with his sensitive nature and ability to step outside the comfort of the man-cave and own his feelings. That, and how he shares his innermost thoughts, will appeal to female readers. Most of all, he is a hunter and takes the chase seriously.

“I would hunt anywhere in the world,” admits Isham. “There’s no place I wouldn’t like to go, as long as it’s a fair chase and open to hunting.

Isham’s personal quest for the Holy Grail of a kudu is a recurring theme throughout “Sound of the String.” But this novel is about more than his failure with the kudu. He learned a great deal in the bush – about life, people, and about himself. He cites bow hunting’s intimacies as being vital to him for the chase: being close enough to the animals to smell them, see their eyes, feel their calm or fear. He is pulled by the dynamic meditation: seeing the shot before you’ve taken it, and then you take it.

Most of all, for Isham, it is the sound of the string as the arrow departs. He shares that very quiet sound with the animal whose flight may well allow him to escape or in the case of a Cape buffalo, see and charge in a role reversal that makes the hunter the hunted.