A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories

by Norman Maclean

Paperback, 1992

Call number




University of Chicago Press (1992), 217 pages


Fiction. Literature. HTML: When Norman Maclean sent the manuscript of A River Runs through It and Other Stories to New York publishers, he received a slew of rejections. One editor, so the story goes, replied, "it has trees in it." Forty years later, the title novella is recognized as one of the great American tales of the twentieth century, and Maclean as one of the most beloved writers of our time. The finely distilled product of a long life of often surprising rapture??for fly-fishing, for the woods, for the interlocked beauty of life and art??A River Runs through It has established itself as a classic of the American West. This new edition will introduce a fresh audience to Maclean's beautiful prose and understated emotional insights. Elegantly redesigned, A River Runs through It includes a new foreword by Robert Redford, director of the Academy Award-winning 1992 film adaptation of River. Based on Maclean's own experiences as a young man, the book's two novellas and short story are set in the small towns and mountains of western Montana. It is a world populated with drunks, loggers, card sharks, and whores, but also one rich in the pleasures of fly-fishing, logging, cribbage, and family. By turns raunchy and elegiac, these superb tales express, in Maclean's own words, "a little of the love I have for the earth as it goes by.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member klarusu
In case anyone reads the review and is worried, the information I've referred to in it, whilst containing plot details, is not a Spoiler as Maclean himself refers to the events at the beginning of the novella. I have focused on the main piece in this collection, 'A River Runs Through It' as it is
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the most substantial of the three novellas.

"In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing"
So starts the chronicle of the hot summer of 1937, the last Maclean spent with his younger brother Paul. This is an unparalleled piece of writing, a poignant and captivating memoir of a particular moment in time for this family and an evocative description of a bygone era in Montana. Maclean's descriptive talents are immense and there is great poetry to his portrayal of fly-fishing as an art form. He applies them equally as effectively when describing the natural world around him and the reader is transported to a time past - feeling the lazy summer heat and the constant flow of the great Montana waters.

He is exceptionally perceptive in his description and analysis of his relationship with his brother Paul. The mirroring of their interaction in the landscape as the brothers cross the Continental Divide at the same time as it becomes apparent there is a great divide in their own lives is subtly achieved.

It is a short work that is peppered with humour to balance the poignancy of events, none more so than the extremely funny description of the disdain which fly fisherman have for fishermen of the bait variety. The descriptions of Maclean's brother-in-law (a bait fisherman, no less) especially on the ill-fated fishing trip which culminated in a naked, sunburnt prostitute running down the main street, are ascerbic and brilliant.

This short novella is as much a history of the waters and fish of Montana, as it is of the family Maclean. The river lives in it as a character all of its own and the reader finds themselves infused with the same love and enthusiasm for fish and the art of fly-casting as Maclean and his family have.
"If you listen carefully, you will hear that the words are underneath the water"
Maclean's use of words and vocabulary choices are second to none. This piece is rich and full. I found myself noting so many quotes from it, just because I found his phrasing so beautiful and his meaning so relevant. It is a piece that is based on a deep foundation of words that breathe life into the natural world around the protagonists.

In the end, however, this story of a family tragedy is heartbreaking. The description of the final fishing trip the sons took with their ageing father is almost painful as the reader is already equipped with the knowledge each moment is one that would never be repeated. Maclean artfully conveys the inevitability of Paul's death through his character building and leaves the reader aching for the loss both to the family and the world, of a brother, a son and an artist.

I cannot recommend this highly enough. It is a classic work and is both moving and affecting. Maclean puts it more eloquently than I ever could:"I am haunted by waters".
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LibraryThing member dchaikin
This is probably my favorite book. I want to call it pseudo-autobiographical because it's based on fact, but these facts are freely bent for literary effect. What makes this book so powerful is that so much happens between the lines. The fundamental emotions are unspoken, or only mentioned. But the
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weight of them is readily felt. They are wrapped within a story where religion is fly fishing; and, polished by striking descriptions of land and nature. Maclean even knows his geology.
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LibraryThing member jphamilton
I’ve returned to my past, to a glorious part of it with a book titled A River Runs Through It. I’ve returned to this book a number of times before, but like so many other things that my late wife and I shared a strong passion for, it has become a little more bittersweet in its glory now these
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many years later. The book shares its pages with two stories also by Norman Maclean, “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim’” and “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky.” The first is quite a short piece, while the second is much longer, but they both allow Maclean to draw on his long experience with the backwoods of Montana, and the hard life of loggers and those in the United States Forest Service.
While these two stories are rougher than River in many ways—partly as they lack the family connection of the novella—they are strong stories on their own.

I returned to the book after catching the last third of Robert Redford’s beautiful movie based on the book. This edition has an excellent foreword written by Redford that gives some insights into the author’s thoughts. Redford learned much while fishing with him, as he courted the man for his permission to film a version of the book. Most unfortunately, Maclean died before the movie got into production, but the movie’s stunning last scene features the author in his natural habitat. Maclean is shown by the water with his fly rod, casting in the canyon’s fading light, as Redford’s narration reads the last haunting lines of the book.

The story and emotions of A River Runs Through It are good enough to eat, but I’m afraid that it would taste like fish, and fish rarely pleases my palate. Somewhere in my fabled boxes of books in a nearby storage unit, are at least two editions of this book. One has the gorgeous drawings of Barry Moser. At my present rate, I will never get through my only wealth left in life—all those boxes of books collected over both Vicky’s and my own years of bookselling and reading. We’d always held to a fantasy that we would once again live somewhere that would allow us to shelve all our wealth again, making any book available to pick off a shelf to reread or loan to a friend. Vicky had always wanted to name a bookstore Old Friends, because that’s what one’s very favorite books become. But we always feared that the public would assume that we were only selling used books and we looked elsewhere for a store name. So, I live on alone, with most all my old friends in boxes.

Nowadays, I wish we’d used that name and simply educated our customers about making old friends of new books. Our extensive book collection has been boxed up for far too many years. In the end, I gave another bookstore a sale, so that I could spend some perfectly golden time reading A River Runs Through It, all over again.
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LibraryThing member Sean191
While these stories were very enjoyable, both from the skillful telling and the subjects, it also left me sad. I was sad to think of all the years lost where Norman Maclean hadn't picked up the author's tools and I was sad for a world that no longer exists and the characters that we're unlikely to
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ever meet. I guess that means it's a great book.
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LibraryThing member justabookreader
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
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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 are poetic in a way. 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.
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LibraryThing member Cygnus555
In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful books ever written. I'm not a reader who often rereads books. This is one of the very few that I will and have read over and over and over again. So authentic, so lyrical, heart-felt, beautiful. Oddly, it is so beautiful that I can't really bring
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myself to continue reading the "other stories" in the book! I start into Your Pal Jim... and feel like I left my home for another, less appealing locale... longingly looking over my shoulder regretting that I had to leave in the first place.
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LibraryThing member srfbluemama
I enjoyed this book immensely. Maclean has a wonderful way of writing that makes me think of my father. This was an enjoyable read, and definitely a classic I'll keep on my personal bookshelf to pass on to my son when he is older.
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
There are three stories in this volume, which is described as semi-autobiographical fiction. The title story is about fly fishing and was a total bore since I care nothing about fishing. The story I would give one star. The second story in the book is entitled "Logging and Pimping and Your Pal
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Jim". It tells of logging and is of some interest because of its description of the work of sawyers. The third story is "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky." It tells a passably interesting story about work as a forest ranger and of a card game and a fight, and is responsible for the book getting three stars from me.
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LibraryThing member kambrogi
There are three stories in this book, the title tale being the longest and most famous of the three. All three read like memoirs – which to a great extent they are – of a young man coming of age in the American midwest during the early 1900’s. All are stories of men most at home in the
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outdoors, guys who like to fish, to fight and to drink, who will never use two words when one will do, and would just as soon use no words at all. As one of these men, Maclean brings his world into sharp focus with little dialog or analysis, using spare but highly visual narration to achieving clarity and even poetry within the limitations his world places upon him.

Few women raise their heads in these stories, and those who dare are of only two types:

*The “whores” are very much like the men; they share their adventures, but are neither loved nor respected by them.

*The strong "Scotswomen” rule the roost, serving as Christian wives and mothers, operating in the background while providing a firm foundation for life. The men love them, but prefer not to have too many run-ins with them.

I propose that the book will appeal best to men and/or those who enjoy the outdoor life, although even a woman who prefers a comfortable chair by the fire will find truth in its pages.
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LibraryThing member flourishing
While I am not normally a fan of any author classified as a "regional writer" or a "western writer," this was fantastic. I had almost forgotten the pleasure of a wonderfully crafted, recently written novel. Just remarkable, fantastic, lovely.I think that part of what I enjoyed about this book was
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that it evoked for me a very specific image of the American West that I grew up in, even though I was only tangential to it; it rang true enough that I wanted to keep reading and was strange enough that I wanted to keep reading. This is one classic that absolutely deserves the name.
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LibraryThing member flourishing
While I am not normally a fan of any author classified as a "regional writer" or a "western writer," this was fantastic. I had almost forgotten the pleasure of a wonderfully crafted, recently written novel. Just remarkable, fantastic, lovely.I think that part of what I enjoyed about this book was
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that it evoked for me a very specific image of the American West that I grew up in, even though I was only tangential to it; it rang true enough that I wanted to keep reading and was strange enough that I wanted to keep reading. This is one classic that absolutely deserves the name.
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LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
Recently re-read. Such good stories! I liked both the low-key grappling with human nature, as well as the "frontier" quality of some of the lumberjack stories.
LibraryThing member co_coyote
Norman Maclean grew up in Montana in the 1920's and this novella and two other short stories describe his experiences there. In many ways it wasn't so different from the way I remember growing up in Arizona in the 1950's. The West was always a tough place. The title story of Maclean's fine book was
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made into a movie staring Brad Pitt and directed by Robert Redford, but I don't remember it having the same effect as reading the story did. An excellent book for rainy afternoons when the wife is complaining about cleaning the house alone and you remember how full of promise life used to be for a young man growing up in the West.
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LibraryThing member ebenlindsey
Two Novellas and a short story. I loved the fishing in the title novella, but the best story was probably the last "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook and the Hole in the Sky" which concerns his experiences in the early years of the forestry service. Beautiful.
LibraryThing member lanusic
I saw the movie " A River Runs Through" with Robert Redford and Bred Pitt, it was excellent! I need to read book!
LibraryThing member wordygirl39
How can you not love this book? Norman Maclean made me want to write.
LibraryThing member CConell
Occasionally, I find a book--like this one--that I want to give to other people to read. After reading this book, I started looking for other Western books, but I think that doing this is a little like reading Jane Austen's complete works and then trying to replicate the experience by reading other
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novels set in Regency England.
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LibraryThing member stipe168
i've only read a river runs through it.. not any of the other short stories. it's a very pretty story, and well written. who knew fly fishing would be so interesting?
LibraryThing member Crystalee
I was bored . . . 100 pages without much happening. Most interesting part? Someone gets sunburnt where NO ONE should. The end.
LibraryThing member CrunchyGranola
Maclean writes beautifully and evokes Montana with lyric prose.
LibraryThing member kslade
I just wanted to read the main story to see how it compared to the film. Very well written and only slightly different. Makes me want to take up fly fishing.
LibraryThing member TiffanyHickox
A beautiful story filled to the brim with astounding metaphor the way a river is filled to the brim with words, movement and life.

A few of my favorite quotes:
"One of life's quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch something beautiful, even if it is only a floating
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"I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river."

"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."

And the last paragraph, which is perhaps the "more perfect" last paragraph ever written:
"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 timelss raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters."

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member FolkeB
A beautifully written book about growing up in Montana. I love the movie but it is nothing compared to this wonderful novella.
LibraryThing member steve.clason
"The world is full of sons-of-bitches, and the frequency of their occurrence increases the further you get from Missoula, Montana."
LibraryThing member foof2you
Three short stories drawing on Maclean's life as a forest employee, a logger and his family. The main story is centered on family and fishing, fly fishing to be exact. All three stories are told with beautiful prose and makes you feel like you are there with them'




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