A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean — Sometimes You Just Can’t Help

I’m smack in the middle of a personal challenge to read at least one book every week. The erudition section of this blog is my attempt to chronicle my challenge and galvanize a lifetime of curiosity and learning. If you have read any of these books before, or happen to pick one up and find it interesting, I’d love to hear your thoughts too.


A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

Every once in a while you find a book that speaks to you in a way you don’t understand. The story in itself ebbs and flows like the tide of water on a beach of characters that teach you more about yourself than you can consciously comprehend. The elegant prose so enraptures you in its profundity that you find yourself questioning whether you are remembering a part of the book or a first-hand experience—or that you have imaginary dialogues with the characters, as if they entrusted to you a part of themselves that intimately found its way into your conscience—and the winding narrative contains in it a symbolism that intrigues in a uniquely unorthodox, enigmatic fashion.

I’ve found very few of those kind of books.

A River Runs Through It is one of those books.

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
—Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

The loosely-biographical story revolves around a family in Montana in the early 1900s. Norman, the older brother, narrates his adventures fly fishing with his younger brother, Paul, and occasionally with their father and cousin. Paul is a master fisherman with great ability, but he has a habit of drinking and bar fighting and landing himself in the sherif’s custody. Norman and his father, a Presbyterian priest, try to help Paul turn his life around as they fish and put up with wives and in-laws together.

What I learned most from this book is simply that you can’t make decisions for somebody else. As much as you want to preach the truth that grains are evil, or cardio ain’t that great, people will make their own (illogical) conclusions. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. In Norman’s love for his brother I saw my own love for people with ability that are willing to learn. In Norman’s struggle to help his brother, I saw my own struggle with people with ability that so often seem to squander it.

We can love completely what we cannot completely understand.
—Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

The author, Norman Maclean, was a literature professor, and he certainly knows how to write fine literature. There were no chapters or breaks in this book; the words of the story flowed together like, well, a river. And some of the prose was so beautiful that I read it over twice or more. If you do any kind of writing, I recommend reading this book just to see how Maclean wrote it.

Final Rating: 5/5 stars

Now, granted, not everyone will find this novel—novella, really—to be as influential as I have. Other reviewers have said this book tends to be boring (I wonder—are they just boring people?). Regardless, I think you should give this one a try. You might be surprised at how well it speaks to you. You certainly will be surprised at how well the story flows. And, besides, it’s a pretty short read.

* * *

For some reason, this passage stood out to me:

He gave me a pat on the back and one of George’s No. 2 Yellow Hackles with a feather wing. He said, “They are feeding on drowned yellow stone flies.”

I asked him, “How did you think that out?”

He thought back on what had happened like a reporter. He started to answer, shook his head when he found he was wrong, and then started out again. “All there is to thinking,” he said, “is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

I said to my brother, “Give me a cigarette and say what you mean.”

“Well,” he said, “the first thing I noticed about this hole was that my brother wasn’t catching any. There’s nothing more noticeable to a fisherman than that his partner isn’t catching any.

“This made me see that I hadn’t seen any stone flies flying around this hole.”

Then he asked me, “What’s more obvious on earth than sunshine and shadow, but until I really saw that there were no stone flies hatching here I didn’t notice that the upper hole where they were hatching was mostly in sunshine and this hole was in shadow.”

I was thirsty to start with, and the cigarette made my mouth drier so I flipped the cigarette into the water.

“Then I know,” he said, “if there were flies in this hole they had come from the hole above that’s in the sunlight where there’s enough heat to make them hatch.

“After that, I should have seen them dead in the water. Since I couldn’t see them dead in the water, I knew they had to be at least six or seven inches under the water where I couldn’t see them. So that’s where I fished.”
—Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

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2 thoughts on “A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean — Sometimes You Just Can’t Help

  1. Hello;

    I am a cousin to Norman MaClean. This was a great book and movie, “A River Runs Through It!” I am his father’s brother’s great grand child on the Canadian side that came out of Nova Scotia. We settled in Southern Manitoba. We are proud of our cousin and his family.

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