The main plot of Norman Maclean's semi-autobiographical novella A River Runs Through It involves the relationship of two brothers and their common love of fly fishing, a particularly difficult but artful method of fishing that binds them together despite their divergent paths in life. Told from the vantage point of the story's author, Norman, A River Runs Through It employs fly fishing in the rivers of bucolic rural Montana as a metaphor for the spirituality that defines this family's life. In one telling passage, Norman places this activity, and the level of commitment it demands, into this broader context:
“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.”
Norman's brother Paul is a newspaper journalist prone to what used to be called muckraking in his determined pursuit of corrupt officials. Paul's achilles heel, however, is his addiction to gambling, which allows for an added element of dramatic tension that Maclean uses to contrast with the calming demeanor associated with fly fishing. Paul gets drunk and gambles away what little money he has, but once back in the river, his talent for casting regularly reminds Norman of his brother's true nature.
As noted, A River Runs Through It is semi-autobiographical. Paul was murdered, beaten to death possibly as a result of his gambling problems. Maclean's story, however, incorporates fictional elements, so balancing truth from fiction remains problematic. The basic plot of the novella, though, is centered on the spirituality the brothers' family finds in the activity of fly fishing, and it is that activity the provides the theme that holds the story together.