Books: A River Runs Through It

(Image / University of Chicago Press)

Missoula, MT – Unless you live in the shadows of the narrow canyon of the Big Blackfoot River, the trout are probably not hitting this time of year. If you’re inclined to trout fishing  – and I am more in notion than practice – it’s a good time then to find instead some shade and pull out A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean.

The story is labeled fiction and is told in the first person by Norman, although to my recollection his name is never uttered or referenced in the book. Its focus is two sons, raised by a Presbyterian minister and his wife, in the early third of the 20th century. Paul, Norman’s brother, is the finest fisherman on the Big Blackfoot, but away from it is where his troubles begin, and ultimately end. The first line of the novel makes clear the relation of the father’s favorite avocation to his vocation, “In our family there was no clear line between fly-fishing and religion.”

Norman is the elder of the two brothers and the lesser of the two fishermen. The story unfolds on the river’s banks and in Missoula and Helena, Montana. Throughout the narrative, Norman tries to sway Paul from his twin troubles of gambling and drinking. There seems to be little that he can do, and it is his effort that is the poignant stuff of the story. For those who have tried to help someone without a discernible direction – and it’s difficult to picture a reader who hasn’t lasting the slim volume out – A River Runs Through It will certainly resonate.

It is a short book, maybe 25,000 words tip to tail, and Maclean has fortunately picked up his father’s proclivity for few words, well-chosen. His crowning achievement may be that there is not a line in the book’s entirety that doesn’t belong. Written at age 72 it was Maclean’s first book, yet it’s not weighed down with a lifetime of unwritten musings.

It is at its core a simple story of struggle and family and a perfect one at that.  – TF