A River Runs Through It
By Normal Maclean
The University of Chicago Press
I’m the daughter of a fisherman — a bass fisherman to be precise. Trust me, it matters. Going into this story, I had few expectations other than I would love it, having loved the movie long before reading this. Talk about expectations being met. Not only is this story wonderfully moving but it brought back a lot of memories I have of fishing with my dad and grandpa. While Norman and his brother Paul are fly fisherman obsessed with the sport and the mechanics of it, the two are easy to relate to and you see how fishing became a metaphor for the lives of these two men.
Norman begins the story by laying out the terms by which his father and brother live. And by live I mean fish. Fishing is their life — sad, stressed, and/or happy — they fish. It transports them to another place where time doesn’t so much matter as long as you get your limit. Paul is a stubborn soul and Norman admits to not being able to understand him or connect with him on his own level which both frustrates and amazes him. His life is boring but orderly and while he may not be the happiest of people, Norman knows who and what he is. Paul is unpredictable, strange, and a wonder with a rod anywhere near water. Even their father has trouble relating to Paul but everyone stands in awe of him, from the careless way he leads his life to the way he can fish a river.
A River Runs Through It is a short chronicle of Paul’s life and Norman’s struggle to understand it. It’s also very sad but I won’t go into spoilers here. You do have to read it to understand the depth he manages to convey with so few words. It’s astonishing.
I love the role the Montana landscape plays in this story. It’s a living being especially the river in which they fish and consider almost a reverent part of the family in ways. Neither brother fears the river although they have a certain respect for it but it’s Paul who seems able to tame it and that’s where Norman’s awe of his brother comes in. His descriptions of Paul’s fishing abilities are poetic in a way and should be read to be fully appreciated so I won’t try to describe it for you.
There are a few additional stories in the book I have, A River Runs Through It being the only one I’ve read so far. Since this is a short story and the best known of Maclean’s work, I wanted to include it here as a separate review. I think it warrants that. It’s an emotionally moving story that feels much longer than its scant 100 pages.