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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Norman Maclean

At a glance
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
by Norman Maclean

University of Chicago Press
217 pages, $12
hardcover

When you look at the specifics of Norman Maclean's life, not much indicates that he had what it takes to write the piece of poetry we know as "A River Runs Through It."

Career academics don't typically retire to write masterpieces.

But Maclean did, which is why it is the June selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

To be specific, "A River Runs Through It" isn't actual poetry. It's the lead story, or novella, in a three-piece collection of prose that is based on Maclean's life growing up in Montana.

Born in Iowa in 1902, Maclean moved with his family to Missoula seven years later. And that's where he stayed - spending his summer working in logging camps and flyfishing whenever he got achance - until, after graduating from high school, he left to attend Dartmouth College.

By 1931 he had been hired as an English instructor at the University of Chicago, where he would teach for the next 42 years, far from the Big Blackfoot River of his youth. It was then that, encouraged by his children, he began writing down the stories of his youth.

The resulting collection, which was first published by the University of Chicago Press in 1976, includes "Logging and Pimping and 'Your Pal, Jim' " and "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky."

But it is the title story that everyone thinks of when they hear the words "A River Runs Through It."

It's clear that Maclean had writing talent all along, though it had been confined mostly to reference works with titles such as "Manual of Instruction in Military Maps and Aerial Photographs." Home-schooled until the age of 10 by his Presbyterian minister father had given him a solid foundation in the language.

As Missoulian reporter Ginny Merriam wrote in the paper's 1999 feature "The 100 Most Influential Montanans of the Century" (Maclean was No. 18), "A River Runs Through It" was Maclean's exploration of "his fly-fishing, Scottish-heritage family and growing up fishing on the Big Blackfoot River with his fated brother, Paul. Biblical allusion, family tragedy and an expression of the budding modern-day conservation ethic united to create a book embraced by Montanans and - to Maclean's dismay - out-of-staters who flocked to Montana's fishing spots."

Rejected by a number of publishers, one reportedly saying that he'd done so because "These stories have trees in them," the collection, which has been published also as the novella alone, has sold more than a million copies and inspired the 1992 Robert Redford film (which comes nowhere close to capturing the book's sensibilities).

"The title novella is the prize," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. "Something unique and marvelous: a story that is at once an evocation of nature's miracles and realities and a probing of human mysteries. Wise, witty, wonderful, Maclean spins his tales, casts his flies, fishes the rivers and the woods for what he remembers from his youth in the Rockies."

Maclean would go on to write another book, "Young Men and Fire," his study of the 1949 Mann Gulch Gulch fire that claimed the lives of 12 out of a 15-man smokejumping crew. He hadn't finished before his death in 1990, and it wouldn't be published until two years later.

But "A River Runs Through It," with its blend of interior life with the beauty of the outdoors, remains his legacy, as the following passages demonstrate.

"One of life's quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful, even if it is only floating ash."

"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."

Poetry, pure poetry.

Return to Book Club Home  //  Contact Dan Webster