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Senior Correspondent

“A River Runs Through It,” A Great Story in American Literature

Book Review

"A River Runs Through It and Other Stories" by Norman Maclean (The University of Chicago Press, 2001)

I've never tied a fly or cast a rod, but I felt as close to the experience as possible without actually doing it in Norman Maclean's beautifully written tribute to fly fishing and family.

The author of this novella and two short stories that come with it was a retired professor of English who started writing fiction at the age of 70. How lucky that he did! In her foreword to this edition, distinguished author Annie Proulx calls it "one of the truly great stories in American literature."

We become intimately acquainted with the Maclean family of western Montana — Norman's father, John, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, Norman (who tells the story) and brother Paul. The Macleans are ardent fly fishermen, taught by the father, who dedicates about the same amount of time to the finer points of fly casting as to spiritual matters while raising his boys. There are a few women in the story, a wife, mother, and sister, but they inhabit the periphery. This is a story about the men in the family and their relationship to each other and the beloved and challenging Big Blackfoot River.

Brothers Norman and Paul, who are opposites in most matters, plan a day of fishing, a pastime on which they readily agree. It isn't all casting, of course. It has to be not only the right part of the river but also the right fly, based on how fat the fly is, how still the water, whether the fish have eaten well, or what color will appeal most to the fish in that particular segment of the river. It was fascinating even to someone who hasn't taken part.

A brother-in-law, Neal, joins in. Norman and Paul look down on Neal because he fishes with bait, lives not in Montana but in California, and gets off the train wearing a red, white and blue tennis sweater.

The novella details every cast and every swirl of water of the ensuing day and of other trips that follow. Norman is the narrator throughout, to the story's tragic end.

The two shorter stories in the volume came from Maclean's high school summer jobs with the newly created U.S. Forest Service in logging camps. As the book jacket of this 25th anniversary edition says (the book originally came out in 1976), these are the experiences of a young man who found that life was only a step from art. Not all is pristine. This was sweaty work in the woods when it was done by horse and hand and foot, and end of the season meant heading to the nearest town for gambling, liquor, and whores.

Robert Redford produced and directed the movie based on "A River Runs Through It" in 1999. The film is admirably faithful to the novella, and beautiful to see. A very young Brad Pitt plays brother Paul.

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