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River Runs Through It (Review)

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A River Runs Through It
Norman Maclean, 1976
217 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
May 2007

On its surface, this beautiful memoir is about the intricacies of fly fishing and the two Montana brothers who fish the big western rivers.

Fishing devotees will revel in descriptions of the rhythm, angles, whip and whistle of the perfect cast. We even get a bit of fish psychology: a trout knows it's being tricked if the fly isn't set perfectly on the water.

But good stories, like big fish, run deep. The brothers' teacher is their Presbyterian minister father, to whom "all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy." Fly-casting here is the art, and younger brother Paul (Brad Pitt in the film version) is at the heart of the story: he becomes a sublime artist, achieving grace and perfection in fly casting—but tragically not in life.

We follow the brothers from childhood into adulthood under the affectionate gaze of older brother Norman. The two are as different in personality as they are alike in their passion for fishing and love for each other. In the story's elegiac last words, a now much older Maclean tells us he is "haunted by waters." And so, by the end, are we. The flow of the river has become the flux of life, uniting author and readers with primordial earth and time, past and present. As Maclean says, "all existence fades to a being with my soul."

A River Runs Through It is combined with two other stories to make up one slender volume. The other stories are delightful accounts of Maclean's youthful experiences in the U.S. Forest Service.

See our Reading Guide for A River Runs Through It.

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