The novel, A River Runs Through It, is set in Montana, and is semi-autobiographical. It is about Norman Maclean—the author. It is his attempt to study the tragic death of his brother Paul—to better understand it—to honor his brother's memory, and to delve into his father's place (a Presbyterian minister) in their lives. The title, A River Runs Through It, refers to the common bond the Maclean men shared through fly-fishing and how it connects the memories the author has of the past. Through his study of the people and events of his life—in particular, the summer when they fished in 1937, when Norman and Paul were in their thirties—Maclean tries to come to terms later in life with what happened so many years before.
A theme running through the story deals with "spiritualism." Maclean's father provides the spiritual training the sons receive while fishing and interacting with nature—learning that God could be found in both. The brothers are very different: Paul is something of a free spirit, enjoying life in ways that conflict with his family's preferences: he gambles and drinks and does not want to settle down. He is gifted at fishing, and handsome. On the other hand, the author struggles to find a balance in his world between fishing and life, in particular, with his family. He worries about Paul.
There are two women in the story, Maclean's mother and his sister-in-law, Jessie, they have nothing to do with fly-fishing; as fishing is such a central part of the story, the women take on a secondary importance in the novel, but not with Maclean—he loves them, these "caregivers" and "peacemakers."
The fishing trip, the last all three would make together, is almost a religious moment for the men as they watch Paul work his magic with the last fish they will ever see him catch. Nature provides a spirituality—that which is present for the men when they go fishing; it draws them together one more time.
The novel was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Maclean's book is considered one of the most outstanding in the Twentieth Century, especially of Western American literature.
In a review for the Chicago Tribune, critic Alfred Kazin stated: 'There are passages here of physical rapture in the presence of unsullied primitive America that are as beautiful as anything in Thoreau and Hemingway'.
At the end of the novel, Paul and Maclean's father are dead, but he still fishes in the Big Blackfoot River. It is there, Maclean writes that...
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”