A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean

river“In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing”

So starts the chronicle of the hot summer of 1937, the last Maclean spent with his younger brother Paul. This is an unparalleled piece of writing, a poignant and captivating memoir of a particular moment in time for this family and an evocative description of a bygone era in Montana. Maclean’s descriptive talents are immense and there is great poetry to his portrayal of fly-fishing as an art form. He applies them equally as effectively when describing the natural world around him and the reader is transported to a time past – feeling the lazy summer heat and the constant flow of the great Montana waters.

He is exceptionally perceptive in his description and analysis of his relationship with his brother Paul. The mirroring of their interaction in the landscape as the brothers cross the Continental Divide at the same time as it becomes apparent there is a great divide in their own lives is subtly achieved.

It is a short work that is peppered with humour to balance the poignancy of events, none more so than the extremely funny description of the disdain which fly fisherman have for fishermen of the bait variety. The descriptions of Maclean’s brother-in-law (a bait fisherman, no less) especially on the ill-fated fishing trip which culminated in a naked, sunburnt prostitute running down the main street, are ascerbic and brilliant.

This short novella is as much a history of the waters and fish of Montana, as it is of the family Maclean. The river lives in it as a character all of its own and the reader finds themselves infused with the same love and enthusiasm for fish and the art of fly-casting as Maclean and his family have.

“If you listen carefully, you will hear that the words are underneath the water”

Maclean’s use of words and vocabulary choices are second to none. This piece is rich and full. I found myself noting so many quotes from it, just because I found his phrasing so beautiful and his meaning so relevant. It is a piece that is based on a deep foundation of words that breathe life into the natural world around the protagonists.

In the end, however, this story of a family tragedy is heartbreaking. The description of the final fishing trip the sons took with their ageing father is almost painful as the reader is already equipped with the knowledge each moment is one that would never be repeated. Maclean artfully conveys the inevitability of Paul’s death through his character building and leaves the reader aching for the loss both to the family and the world, of a brother, a son and an artist.

I cannot recommend this highly enough. It is a classic work and is both moving and affecting. Maclean puts it more eloquently than I ever could:

“I am haunted by waters”.

One thought on “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean

  1. Pingback: The Landscape of Literature | The Reading Gene

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