I don’t recall how I came upon the book initially, but it had a profound impact on me. In 1976, Norman Maclean, a retired English professor, published what I consider, as if that really means anything at all, one of the best pieces of American literature ever written – A River Runs through It. A semi-autobiographical novel set in early 20th century Missoula, Montana, it’s a tragedy, a love story, an outdoorsman’s paradise and a fly fisherman’s Nirvana all rolled into 231 pages of inexplicably gratifying reading. Some writers have a natural gift with words – wordsmitties. They seem to effortlessly wield words that elicit feelings. They paint pictures indescribable and apply words to emotions seemingly inexplicable. I could go on, inadequately describing Mr. Maclean, but I think it best to let his own words speak.
“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.”
“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.”
“When I was young, a teacher had forbidden me to say “more perfect” because she said if a thing is perfect it can’t be more so. But by now I had seen enough of life to have regained my confidence in it.”
“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.”
“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. 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 those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
In 1992, Robert Redford made the book into a beautiful film. A River Runs through It, is an American classic.