A River Runs Through Itby Norman MacLean, Ivan Doig
Maclean writes "in my family, there is no clear line between religion and fly-fishing." Nor is there a clear line between family and fly-fishing. It is the one activity where brother can connect with brother and father with son. In Maclean's autobiographical novella, it is the river that makes them realize that life continues and all things are related. See more details below
Maclean writes "in my family, there is no clear line between religion and fly-fishing." Nor is there a clear line between family and fly-fishing. It is the one activity where brother can connect with brother and father with son. In Maclean's autobiographical novella, it is the river that makes them realize that life continues and all things are related.
James R. Frakes,New York Times
Barbara Bannon,Publisher's Weekly
- Findaway World, LLC
- Publication date:
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- Abridged Library Edition
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- 4.88(w) x 7.78(h) x 1.14(d)
Read an Excerpt
A River Runs Through It
By Norman Maclean
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our
father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own
flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being
fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all
first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that
John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.
It is true that one day a week was given over wholly to religion. On
Sunday mornings my brother, Paul, and I went to Sunday school and then to
"morning services" to hear our father preach and in the evenings to
Christian Endeavor and afterwards to "evening services" to hear our father
preach again. In between on Sunday afternoons we had to study The
Westminster Shorter Catechism for an hour and then recite before we could
walk the hills with him while he unwound between services. But he never
asked us more than the first question in the catechism, "What is the chief
end of man?" And we answered together so one of us could carry on if the
other forgot, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, andto enjoy Him
forever." This always seemed to satisfy him, as indeed such a beautiful
answer should have, and besides he was anxious to be on the hills where he
could restore his soul and be filled again to overflowing for the evening
sermon. His chief way of recharging himself was to recite to us from the
sermon that was coming, enriched here and there with selections from the
most successful passages of his morning sermon.
Even so, in a typical week of our childhood Paul and I probably received
as many hours of instruction in fly fishing as we did in all other
After my brother and I became good fishermen, we realized that our father
was not a great fly caster, but he was accurate and stylish and wore a
glove on his casting hand. As he buttoned his glove in preparation to
giving us a lesson, he would say, "It is an art that is performed on a
four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock."
As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a
mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. Somehow, I early
developed the notion that he had done this by falling from a tree. As for
my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he
certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God's
rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many
Presbyterians, he often used the word "beautiful."
After he buttoned his glove, he would hold his rod straight out in front
of him, where it trembled with the beating of his heart. Although it was
eight and a half feet long, it weighed only four and a half ounces. It was
made of split bamboo cane from the far-off Bay of Tonkin. It was wrapped
with red and blue silk thread, and the wrappings were carefully spaced to
make the delicate rod powerful but not so stiff it could not tremble.
Always it was to be called a rod. If someone called it a pole, my father
looked at him as a sergeant in the United States Marines would look at a
recruit who had just called a rifle a gun.
My brother and I would have preferred to start learning how to fish by
going out and catching a few, omitting entirely anything difficult or
technical in the way of preparation that would take away from the fun. But
it wasn't by way of fun that we were introduced to our father's art. If
our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be
allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him. So you too will have to
approach the art Marine and Presbyterian-style, and, if you have never
picked up a fly rod before, you will soon find it factually and
theologically true that man by nature is a damn mess. The
four-and-a-half-ounce thing in silk wrappings that trembles with the
underskin motions of the flesh becomes a stick without brains, refusing
anything simple that is wanted of it. All that a rod has to do is lift the
line, the leader, and the fly off the water, give them a good toss over
the head, and then shoot them forward so they will land in the water
without a splash in the following order: fly, transparent leader, and then
the line-otherwise the fish will see the fly is a fake and be gone. Of
course, there are special casts that anyone could predict would be
difficult, and they require artistry-casts where the line can't go over
the fisherman's head because cliffs or trees are immediately behind,
sideways casts to get the fly under overhanging willows, and so on. But
what's remarkable about just a straight cast-just picking up a rod with a
line on it and tossing the line across the river?
Well, until man is redeemed he will always take a fly rod too far back,
just as natural man always overswings with an ax or golf club and loses
all his power somewhere in the air: only with a rod it's worse, because
the fly often comes so far back it gets caught behind in a bush or rock.
When my father said it was an art that ended at two o'clock, he often
added, "closer to ten than to two," meaning that the rod should be taken
back only slightly farther than overhead (straight overhead being twelve
Then, since it is natural for man to try to attain power without
recovering grace, he whips the line back and forth making it whistle each
way, and sometimes even snapping off the fly from the leader, but the
power that was going to transport the little fly across the river somehow
gets diverted into building a bird's nest of line, leader, and fly that
falls out of the air into the water about ten feet in front of the
fisherman. If, though, he pictures the round trip of the line, transparent
leader, and fly from the time they leave the water until their return,
they are easier to cast. They naturally come off the water heavy line
first and in front, and light transparent leader and fly trailing behind.
But, as they pass overhead, they have to have a little beat of time so the
light, transparent leader and fly can catch up to the heavy line now
starting forward and again fall behind it; otherwise, the line starting on
its return trip will collide with the leader and fly still on their way
up, and the mess will be the bird's nest that splashes into the water ten
feet in front of the fisherman.
Almost the moment, however, that the forward order of line, leader, and
fly is reestablished, it has to be reversed, because the fly and
transparent leader must be ahead of the heavy line when they settle on the
water. If what the fish sees is highly visible line, what the fisherman
will see are departing black darts, and he might as well start for the
next hole. High overhead, then, on the forward cast (at about ten o'clock)
the fisherman checks again.
The four-count rhythm, of course, is functional. The one count takes the
line, leader, and fly off the water; the two count tosses them seemingly
straight into the sky; the three count was my father's way of saying that
at the top the leader and fly have to be given a little beat of time to
get behind the line as it is starting forward; the four count means put on
the power and throw the line into the rod until you reach ten o'clock-then
check-cast, let the fly and leader get ahead of the line, and coast to a
soft and perfect landing. Power comes not from power everywhere, but from
knowing where to put it on. "Remember," as my father kept saying, "it is
an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two
My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe.
To him, all good things-trout as well as eternal salvation-come by grace
and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.
So my brother and I learned to cast Presbyterian-style, on a metronome. It
was mother's metronome, which father had taken from the top of the piano
in town. She would occasionally peer down to the dock from the front porch
of the cabin, wondering nervously whether her metronome could float if it
had to. When she became so overwrought that she thumped down the dock to
reclaim it, my father would clap out the four-count rhythm with his cupped
Eventually, he introduced us to literature on the subject. He tried always
to say something stylish as he buttoned the glove on his casting hand.
"Izaak Walton," he told us when my brother was thirteen or fourteen, "is
not a respectable writer. He was an Episcopalian and a bait fisherman."
Although Paul was three years younger than I was, he was already far ahead
of me in anything relating to fishing and it was he who first found a copy
of The Compleat Angler and reported back to me, "The bastard doesn't even
know how to spell 'complete.' Besides, he has songs to sing to
dairymaids." I borrowed his copy, and reported back to him, "Some of those
songs are pretty good." He said, "Whoever saw a dairymaid on the Big
"I would like," he said, "to get him for a day's fishing on the Big
Blackfoot-with a bet on the side."
The boy was very angry, and there has never been a doubt in my mind that
the boy would have taken the Episcopalian money.
When you are in your teens-maybe throughout your life-being three years
older than your brother often makes you feel he is a boy. However, I knew
already that he was going to be a master with a rod. He had those extra
things besides fine training-genius, luck, and plenty of self-confidence.
Even at this age he liked to bet on himself against anybody who would fish
with him, including me, his older brother. It was sometimes funny and
sometimes not so funny, to see a boy always wanting to bet on himself and
almost sure to win. Although I was three years older, I did not yet feel
old enough to bet. Betting, I assumed, was for men who wore straw hats on
the backs of their heads. So I was confused and embarrassed the first
couple of times he asked me if I didn't want "a small bet on the side just
to make things interesting." The third time he asked me must have made me
angry because he never again spoke to me about money, not even about
borrowing a few dollars when he was having real money problems.
We had to be very careful in dealing with each other. I often thought of
him as a boy, but I never could treat him that way. He was never "my kid
brother." He was a master of an art. He did not want any big brother
advice or money or help, and, in the end, I could not help him.
Excerpted from A River Runs Through It
by Norman Maclean
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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