Book of the Month September 2021

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By Larry Ray

A Tough Act to Follow. How many of you have read” The book”? Or seen “the movie”? A River Runs Through It was published by Norman Maclean in 1976. Robert Redford’s movie version followed sometime later, in 1992. While both received considerable acclaim, the fly-fishing community itself took a bit of a different view. Those who valued their secluded fishing in southwest Montana regretted the increased fishing pressure created by the book’s devotees who made pilgrimages to the Big Blackfoot and other area waters. Then, when the movie ignited what amounted to a brushfire of fly anglers on fly fishing waters around the west, those long in the sport became genuinely resentful. The term “the movie” became a thinly veiled pejorative when used among the older fly-fishing crowd. And, nobody had to ask “What movie?”.

Norman Maclean’s son, John, has now authored his own work, Home Waters, chronicling the family’s history in Montana, as well as in Chicago. Through the good graces of Claude Kistler, the SFF Library now owns an autographed copy. The new book has received wonderful reviews which is, in itself, a fine accomplishment if only because the father’s book was a tough act to follow. Does it rise to the level of the father’s work? I’m not sure. Better leave that question to those who are much more advanced in the literary world than I. But I can tell you that it is a very entertaining book, building off A River… while breaking some new ground of its own.

A River… was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize but, as the Committee had a difficult time classifying it, the nomination did not result in the award. It was short, not of sufficient length to be considered a novella at just over a hundred pages, yet covered far too much ground to be considered a short story. Was it autobiographical? Somewhat, but it was also fictionalized in part. The process leading to the nomination and ultimate rejection is documented by the son in Home Waters. Some involved were friends and colleagues of the Macleans in the literary world, and its ultimate rejection resulted in some tense moments and even altered some friendships. This as described in Home Waters in some detail.

Like the previous book, Home Waters is also difficult to classify. It is certainly autobiographical in nature, but it delves into other topics. A portion of it traces Meriweather Lewis’s return with the Corps of Discovery in 1806 along the Blackfoot, utilizing the trail (really a road) paved by hundreds of years of native travel. The author and other local experts explored remnants of the road with some fascinating findings. These are described in one of the chapters. John Maclean has also written several books on western fires and fire-fighting, and there are references to fire and how it has shaped the ecology of the area, most especially how it has favored the survival of the Western Larch trees found near Seely Lake, where the family cabin is located. He also includes a chapter about the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado, in 1994, and compares it to the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana in 1949. Both resulted in the loss of many fire fighters. His descriptions of the tracing, with some of the relatives, of the movements of the doomed fighters at both sites, is moving. Its as though he relates to their grief over their losses much as he grieves the loss of his brother to untimely death. His vivid descriptions of the actions taken by the fire fighters as they fled the flames and otherwise fought to survive will make the reader more appreciative of the dangers faced by today’s wild fire fighters.

Most would agree, I think, that John’s brother Paul was the real hero of A River Runs Through It. Certainly, Norman Mclean grew to revere his father, even as growing up under his stern, Presbyterian guidance inspired some rebellion. But, the love for Paul felt by both Norman and his father was unabashed. This love, and resulting regret by both at not being able to change that course in the family’s history, is repeated throughout Home Waters. Two photos – one a portrait, the other a shot of Paul fishing mid-stream – are included in the small collection of photos provided. Paul’s conflicted character – smart, articulate, yet craving danger – seems reflected in the eyes. Home Waters actually strives to uncover the truth behind what was probably Paul’s murder. Not wanting to spoil it for the reader I will only tell you that, contrary to the movie, John’s death does not occur in Missoula.

As was A River…, Home Waters is built around fly-fishing, but more loosely so. John reflects on fishing with his father, and related shared experiences, on the waters near the family cabin on Seely Lake. The book opens with a battle between the author and a very large rainbow trout on the Blackfoot. It is plain that it may be the fish of a lifetime if he can only land it…then, the book continues on until, near the end, the description of the battle resumes. Like other parallels between the two stories, this battle is akin to the one that brother Paul fights with another huge fish on the same river, on the last fishing trip the brothers, with their father, enjoyed together.

There are differences, especially in writing style. Norman Mclean was a professor of English literature at the University of Chicago who especially loved Shakespeare and appreciated creative fiction. John, the son, was a young firefighter with the U.S. Forrest Service before moving into a career in newspaper journalism, where reporting fact and brief, factual analysis trump story-telling creativity. Thus, while the kind of creative, humorous narrative found in the description of the drunken misadventures of bad-cousin Neale in A River… will not be found in Home Waters, John proves to be enough of a factual story-teller to make for good reading.

I have, in writing this review, made repeated comparison between both books. As I wrote this, I found it simply impossible to avoid doing so. In some ways, John Maclean does continue and elaborate on his father’s work. While Home Waters moves into other areas not touched on by Norman (it fills 240+ pages, compared to 104 in A River.), it always returns to the family chronicle.
The final return is in the closing. It, to me, is almost eerie in its resemblance to the last paragraph of A River…, sharing its haunting, echoing tone. At first, I thought this to be somewhat cheap imitation but, upon reflection, realized that John could not have ended his book any other way.

When we are able to meet again, and that day will come, Home Waters will be made available for lending by the Spokane Fly Fishers Library.

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