Book Group Tackles Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It”

Bill Linder-Scholer [1]


Norman Maclean
Norman Maclean

For its monthly book read for November 2015, the Men’s Book Group of Westminster Presbyterian Church of Minneapolis chose Norman Maclean’s short novel, “A River Runs Through It.” By the end of our 90-minute discussion about the novel, most of our members were convinced that Maclean’s novella is much more than a story about three men who like to fly fish the rough rivers of western Montana. We cast our questions widely to open up the deeper pools of the story’s meanings by looking to the text, to the facts of Maclean’s life, and to the images of water and the Biblical Word for guidance. We shared thoughts about the author’s direct use of Presbyterian theology to structure his plot and meaning. And in the final analysis, we acknowledged that although the novel ends with a haunting tragedy, it also leaves us with the abiding consolation provided by notions of a loving God and grace-filled moments in each of our lives.



“A River Runs Through It” is the story of Maclean’s family of origin, a religious family in which, as the author tells us famously in the novel’s opening line, “there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” Maclean is the older son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. From their father, Norman and his younger brother Paul receive training in theology, fly fishing, and writing, but since fishing is religion in the Maclean world and fly fishermen the penultimate species of anglers, the novel’s key scenes involve fly fishing on rivers between Missoula and Helena, in the summer of 1937. “It is hard work,” Maclean insists, “living in such fast water all the time” (page 63 in the 25th Anniversary Edition by the Univ. of Chicago Press), a comment not only about the tenacious trout these men seek to catch, but also about the younger brother, whose stubborn habits of drinking too much, fighting local customs, and getting in over his head in serious gambling games means he is always swimming against the current. The story line ends with Paul’s brutal death at the hands of angry gambling partners, which leaves Norman and his parents with deep grief and few answers about why.

Key to our discussion of this novel were two obvious points–”A River Runs Through It” is a deeply Presbyterian work as well a carefully contrived story in which the characters and the events are reflective of an overriding message about family relationships, our individual search for success and meaning, and the mystery of God’s grace.

From the opening paragraphs, Maclean uses Presbyterian theology to give meaning and order to the events of the story. His quote from the Westminster Shorter Catechism [2]–that “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever”–provides a way of understanding why the Reverend Maclean taught his sons to appreciate the glory of the Montana setting and to find enjoyment in working the Big Blackfoot River in search of the perfect catch. Such purposeful activity in beautiful surroundings reflects Maclean’s sense of how to appreciate the beauty and majesty of the divine.


If “fly fishing stands for life” in this story, as Roger Ebert suggested in his 1992 review of the Robert Redford movie version of the novel, then it is no surprise that Norman and Paul take to the river to fish whenever they can, and in our discussion we noted the ways in which the fishing scenes are bookmarks around which the rest of the story is built–a story with the characteristics of a good trout fishing river (pp. 61-63): first the fast action of the rapids, then the inevitable complications of the deep pools, and finally the calm waters resolving at the end.

The first fishing scene of the story (pages 12-21) tells us a good deal about the brothers and the basis of their relationship, flawed though it is. Norman works diligently if slavishly to replicate his father’s approach to fly fishing (“an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock”) and has admirable if moderate success, whereas his younger brother Paul has all the grace and power of a natural and soon exceeds the mechanical limitations of his father’s discipline to attain a masterful casting technique (“shadow casting,” Maclean calls it, as if to emphasize its origins in a world beyond ours) which his father can only describe as “beautiful.” About his younger brother, Norman says (with potent foreshadowing): “ 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” (p. 6). “Helping” is a code-word for relating to and loving others, in Maclean’s taxonomy.

The notion of salvation by grace through faith is the other point of Presbyterian theology that helps structure the story as well as hint at its ultimate meanings. “My father,” says Norman, “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 easily” (p. 4). Of course, Maclean has given the standard Presbyterian line a bit of a twist, adding in the role of art, the human effort to glorify God, as part of the essential human response to the promise of grace. So it is that the Reverend Maclean believes his son Paul is simply, divinely “beautiful” in his fishing artistry.

But then our discussion foundered on the obvious dilemma of this story: why is it that Paul–the wayward son eventually overcome by his own shortcomings–is the one who is described by his minister father as “beautiful,” with the implication that Paul more than the others has attained something extraordinary, something akin to divine perfection? (At one point of climax in a fishing scene, Maclean describes Paul as surrounded by a “halo” of water” as he performs his miracle cast [p. 21].) This led our discussion to the paradoxical mystery of divine grace, a grace given without qualifying effort on our part (but which also engenders effort to “glorify”).

For the Maclean brothers, these are troubled waters and when the police call Norman to come to the station house to rescue his drunken brother and girlfriend, Norman is not surprised. Despite his mastery of fly fishing, Paul seems bent on a destructive life course, drinking heavily and slipping dangerously into debt at the famed Lolo poker game. The brothers try to reach out to each other, but neither understands the other well enough to be helpful. The best they can do is to set up another fishing trip. To that end, they agree to take Norman’s no-count brother-in-law fishing, a trip that (literally) reveals the brother-in-law as a true failure but helps bring the Maclean brothers together in support of one another at least temporarily. But how should we understand their relationship?

Our deepest point of discussion of “A River Runs Through It” focused finally on two Biblical themes–the Genesis story of Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and the New Testament parable of the prodigal son [3].

The notion of the younger Maclean brother Paul as a ‘prodigal son’ provides both motive and meaning. It is clear from the start of the story that the family thinks highly of Paul despite his indiscretions, and desperate to understand and love their younger son, the parents go to great lengths to show their love for Paul, nowhere more clearly than in the humorous dinner scene at the family home the evening before what proves to be Paul’s final fishing trip. The mother fusses over Paul and gratuitously butters his dinner roll for him; father and brother eagerly ask to hear Paul’s latest stories. But when Paul leaves the house early (to go gambling), the party collapses. “Although only one left,” Norman says, “all the voices had gone” (p. 80). The Rev. Maclean tries to express his (mixed) feelings about Paul to Norman, but he can only muster his conclusion that “help is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly…[and so it is] that we can seldom help anybody” (p. 81). But Paul is gone; this prodigal son can’t quite make it all the way home, it seems.

By the same token, Norman is burdened from the start by his perceived sense of duty to help his younger, troubled brother. But Paul doesn’t want his help, and in fact when Norman gets in trouble with his wife and her family for the fiasco fishing trip with the brother-in-law, Paul overtly offers to “help” Norman by setting up yet another fishing trip, this one to include their father as well, on the Big Blackfoot River, their cherished chapel in the woods. When Paul suggests that they fish together, Norman says “I knew then that he was still taking care of me, because we almost always split up when we fished” (p. 85). Despite the their imperfect relationship and Paul’s growing troubles, the brothers find a moment of unity in this fishing trip, when “all things came together.” Thin place moments of sacred unity abound when the brothers are together, fishing the waters of the Blackfoot. Watching Paul catch his limit of trout on this trip, the father exclaims, “He is beautiful,” but by the very next day Norman has to deliver the news of Paul’s death to their dumbfounded parents.

Running through the book are the rivers, their waters providing thematic momentum. Like the flow of life that captures us all, the characters of this novel live and breathe and have their being on the water. After Paul’s death, Norman remembers him “both as a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter” (p. 101). In the end, Norman admits that, some thirty years after the events of the story, he is still “haunted by waters.”

So it is that, in the Maclean scheme of things, we labor mightily to glorify God, each in our own way, and to love one another despite the distance that inevitably separates us one from another. When Reverend Maclean struggles to make sense of Paul’s life and death, Norman reminds himthat “you can love completely without complete understanding” (p. 103).


[1] Bill Linder-Scholer is a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church of Minneapolis and an enthusiastic participant in its Men’s Book Study Group. Prior to his retirement in 2011, Bill was a foundation executive and consultant on strategic corporate philanthropy and public education. His participation in the Westminster men’s book group reflects his stint in teaching at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he completed a Ph.D. in English literature and taught classes in rhetoric and fiction.

[2] The Westminster Shorter Catechism from 1646-1647 is one of 11 creeds and confessions contained in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (as of 2014). In such creeds and confessions, according to the Church’s Book of Order (Section F-2.01), “the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do; they also “identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions [and] guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures.” Such creeds and confessions, however, “are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him.” (Id. Section F-2.02.)

[3] For the “brother’s keeper” theme, see Genesis 4:1-16, where Cain responds to God’s inquiry about the missing (murdered) younger brother, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Jesus’s teaching via the parable of the prodigal and his brother is recounted in the Gospel of Luke 15: 11-32. For a detailed explication of the use of this parable in Maclean’s novel, see Dooley, Patrick K. “The Prodigal Son Parable and Maclean’s “A River Runs Through it,” RENASCENCE 58.2 (Winter 2005): 165-175.