Just as Norman Maclean writes at the end of "A River Runs through It" that he is "haunted by waters," so have readers been haunted by his novella. A retired English professor who began writing fiction at the age of 70, Maclean produced what is now recognized as one of the classic American stories of the twentieth century. Originally published in 1976, A River Runs through It and Other Stories now celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary, marked by this new edition that includes a foreword by Annie Proulx.
Maclean grew up in the western Rocky Mountains in the first decades of the twentieth century. As a young man he worked many summers in logging camps and for the United States Forest Service. The two novellas and short story in this collection are based on his own experiences—the experiences of a young man who found that life was only a step from art in its structures and beauty. The beauty he found was in reality, and so he leaves a careful record of what it was like to work in the woods when it was still a world of horse and hand and foot, without power saws, "cats," or four-wheel drives. Populated with drunks, loggers, card sharks, and whores, and set in the small towns and surrounding trout streams and mountains of western Montana, the stories concern themselves with the complexities of fly fishing, logging, fighting forest fires, playing cribbage, and being a husband, a son, and a father.
By turns raunchy, poignant, caustic, and elegiac, these are superb tales which express, in Maclean's own words, "a little of the love I have for the earth as it goes by." A first offering from a 70-year-old writer, the basis of a top-grossing movie, and the first original fiction published by the University of Chicago Press, A River Runs through It and Other Stories has sold more than a million copies. As Proulx writes in her foreword to this new edition, "In 1990 Norman Maclean died in body, but for hundreds of thousands of readers he will live as long as fish swim and books are made."
About the Author
Norman Maclean (1902-1990), woodsman, scholar, teacher, and storyteller, grew up in the Western Rocky Mountains of Montana and worked for many years in logging camps and for the United States Forestry Service before beginning his academic career. He was the William Rainey Harper Professor of English at the University of Chicago until 1973.
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.
Table of Contents
A River Runs through It
Logging and Pimping and "Your Pal, Jim"
USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky
What People are Saying About This
'I am haunted by waters,' says Norman MacLean at the end of his remarkable title piece inA River Runs Through It and Other Stories.And by this time you will be, too-haunted by his Big Black Foot River, by the memories of his father and brother (with whom he fished), by the uncanny blending of fly-fishing with the affections of the heart…A River Runs Through It is earthy, whimsical, authoritative, wise; it touches the heart without blushing and traces lasting images for the eye…The book is a gem.
(Nick Lyons, Fly-Fisherman)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is one of my all time favorite novels, which is why the numerous misprints are so distracting. It's as though no one bothered to edit the e-book version. For example, thier are two obvious mistakes on the first page; the third and fourth sentences. It so frustrating to pay $10 for a 98 page book that is so full of errors that I have to go to my written version just to see how it's actually supposed to read.
Read on a recent visit to the Yellowstone River in Montana. What a joy it was to read about the landscape we had emersed ourselfs in. It was hard to put down and I found myself finishing it in quiet sobs one morning before dawn. It haunted me for days.
This is a wonderful book, but the conversion to e-book had faulty OCR, resulting in occasional nonsense words - for example, the title of the last story comes out "The Ranger, the Cook, and a Floic in the Sky"
If you don't at least know the title of this book you have been living under a rock somewhere. This has been a hit movie as well as a best selling book. It has had definite staying power since published in 1976. Comprised of three semi-autobiographical novellas the title story is the most popular and best known of the three. In fact, a lot of reviews don't really mention the other two stories which are equally as good. Even the back of the 1992 copy I read recapped only the title story - about a family of fishermen. Father is a minister who instilled a love of fly fishing in his two sons. One son is an alcoholic while the other tries to balance a marriage with his love of the Montana wilderness. What is missing is mention of the two other stories: "Logging and Pimping and 'Your Pal, Jim'" and "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the cook, and a Hole in the Sky." The first is exactly what it sounds like, logging, pimping and a relationship with a logger named Jim. The USFS story is about MacLean as a teenager working as a forest ranger. While it is a subtle detail it is interesting to note MacLean's stories have a reverse chronology. MacLean is in his 30s in "A River Runs Through It," in his 20s in "Logging," and in his teens in "USFS 1919."
Beautiful writing which really evokes life in the early twentieth century in the rural US. I'm not a fly fisher, but 'A River Runs Through It' is a masterpiece of a story which explores the relationship between the two brothers. The descriptions of the river, and nature are lyrical and MacLean is a master storyteller. Wonderful.
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 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.
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 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.
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 ash.""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.
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.
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 ever meet. I guess that means it's a great book.
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 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.
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 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.
"The world is full of sons-of-bitches, and the frequency of their occurrence increases the further you get from Missoula, Montana."
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 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.
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?
How can you not love this book? Norman Maclean made me want to write.
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 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.
I was bored . . . 100 pages without much happening. Most interesting part? Someone gets sunburnt where NO ONE should. The end.
I enjoyed it, but at only a hundred pages, I somehow thought it would be more. This might be one of those rare occasions when I got more out of the movie than the book.
This is a well-written, thought-provoking journey into the Montana landscape and the minds and hearts of the Maclean family. Norm tells about his father, brother Paul and mother as they live close to rivers. The men spend endless hours fly-fishing and developing its art form. The father is a minister, the mom, a strong support system and his brother Paul baffles them all. He seems to have his own set way of seeing the world and his tragic death leaves them all pondering how they could have helped him or if they could have helped him make better choices. Seeing the movie first left me with a few spoilers, but the fine writing of Norman Maclean made the second time around just as intriguing!
Skypaw darts in and looks around.