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A River Runs Through It ()

Mr. Doggett's Suggested Summer Reading for Students

When, several years ago, I started reading a lot of fishing books, one title kept cropping up in other books.  Every author seemed to defer to A River Runs Through It; it was universally acknowledged to be the greatest fishing story ever written.  I dutifully sought it out and read it.  I'm sure everyone has seen the movie by now, so I won't be giving anything away when I confess that Paul's death upset me so much that, on that first reading, I hated the book.  It was like Old Yeller and the MASH where Henry died and Brian's Song all rolled into one.  Returning to it better prepared, I simply enjoyed it for the language and for the bittersweet family story it relates and I learned to love it.  Then, in 1992, Robert Redford brought the story to the screen and the beauty of the scenery and some terrific performances, combined with the large chunks of narrative taken directly from the book, resulted in one of the better movies of recent years and cemented the book's place in the pantheon of great American stories.

Amazingly, Norman MacLean, who taught English at the University of Chicago for 43 years, did not publish this book until 1976, after retiring from his teaching job in 1973.  I don't know whether he had worked on the story throughout his whole life, as was the case with the posthumous book Young Men and Fire, but the final product has such beautifully sculpted language, that it would not be hard to believe that it is the end result of four decades of effort.  Here is the famous opening:

    In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.  We lived at the junction of
    great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman
    who tied his own flies and taught others.  He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and
    we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee
    were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

And, of course, after Paul's death, Norman's father urges him:

   Why don't you make up a story and the people to go with it? Only then will you understand what
   happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.

And the story concludes:

    Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach
    out to them.

    Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and some friends think I shouldn't.  Like
    many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often
    do not start fishing until the cool of the evening.  Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all
    existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River
    and a four-count rhythm and the hope that fish will rise.

    Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world's
    great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless
    raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

    I am haunted by waters.

And in between these memorable passages, MacLean unfolds a timeless story of fathers and sons and brothers and their often futile attempts to understand one another and the way in which sport can provide a tie, sometimes the only tie, between them.  You will be haunted by the affecting story and by MacLean's crystalline prose in this very nearly perfect book.


Grade: (A+)


Norman MacLean Links:

    -REVIEW ESSAY: The River Runs On: Norman Maclean's Christian Tragedies (Timothy P. SchillingJanuary 13, 2016, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY: Norman Maclean and Me: Advice for living and drinking from the author of A River Runs Through It (Rebecca McCarthy, December 2, 2019, American Scholar)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: The high cost of Hollywood nostalgia: Thirty years after its release, ‘A River Runs Through It’ stands out as a rarity: a film that finds meaning in the past without yearning to restore it. (Tom Joudrey, September 24, 2022, Boston Globe)

Other recommended books by Norman MacLean:
    -One assumes that the Audio Version of the story would be terrific:
A River Runs Through It
    -Young Men and Fire

    -QUOTES: from A River Runs Through It
    -EXCERPT (University of Chicago Press)
    -LETTER: A letter written by Norman Maclean in 1981 to Charles Elliott of Alfred A. Knopf which had rejected the first book, but was then courting Maclean for his second manuscript, 'Young Men and Fire'
    -REVIEW: Hooked! (Roger Sale, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: Death in Montana (Robert M. Adams, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of YOUNG MEN & FIRE By Norman Maclean (James R. Kincaid, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW:  of Young Men and Fire By Norman Maclean (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW ESSAY : Maclean classic timely in wake of fire tragedy  (JOHN MARSHALL, , July 20, 2001,  SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER)

    -ARTICLE : Did red tape contribute to fire deaths? : McInnis claims bureaucratic delays in tackling forest blaze (M.E. Sprengelmeyer, August 2001, Rocky Mountain News)