A River Runs Through It Summary
by Norman Maclean

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A River Runs Through It Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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A River Runs Through It compresses the events of several summers into one, the summer Norman Maclean’s brother Paul dies. In establishing background, Maclean explains the importance of fly fishing as the main activity through which the males of the family related to one another. Fishing also provided spiritual education. By describing their fishing trips and related events during the summer of 1937, a much older Maclean seeks to understand the tragedy of his brother’s death, to pay homage to him, and to show appreciation for his father’s love and wisdom.

A River Runs Through It is written in first-person limited narration. Maclean the narrator is the protagonist, his character derived from the author’s memories and reflections. He tells the story chronologically, often referring to characters in terms of their familial roles, as “my father,” “my brother,” “my mother-in-law.” In addition to the three male Maclean characters, there are two female Macleans: the mother, wife of the minister, and Jessie, Maclean’s wife. Jessie’s family provides two other significant characters, her brother, Neal, and her mother, Florence.

The story reads as if it were a highly stylized personal essay. As an introduction to the family members and their culture, Maclean begins, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” Even though these are minister’s children, they receive nearly equal instruction in spiritual concerns and in fly fishing. Paul’s fishing ability early transcends the ordinary, causing Maclean to feel great respect for his younger brother. As men, Maclean and Paul are both successful in their own ways. Maclean has done well in school and in the Forest Service. Paul is a newspaper reporter who does not allow work to interfere with his fishing.

As the events of the summer begin, Maclean asks Paul, as a favor, to go fishing with him and his brother-in-law Neal. Paul agrees out of respect for Maclean’s mother-in-law, who has requested the expedition. Neal is a newly returned Montana native whom Paul accuses of having become a lowly bait fisherman. As boys, the brothers had taken it for granted that Jesus would have been a fly fisherman. Before enduring Neal’s company, Paul persuades Maclean to slip away for a day on their own special river, the Big Blackfoot.

Once they begin fishing, Maclean describes Paul as almost miraculous in his fishing ability, so amazing that a woman gazes at him raptly while her husband keeps repeating “Jesus.” That evening, Paul becomes so drunk and disorderly that he is jailed along with his Indian girlfriend; when Maclean goes to the jail to get them, the desk sergeant warns that Paul’s excessive drinking is chronic and that his gambling is out of control. Thus we see Paul travel from a state of grace to a drunken failure in one brief interval, a pattern he continues until his death.

The fishing trip with Neal and Old Rawhide, a prostitute he brings along, follows in the same vein with some comic relief. Maclean and Paul experience the purity of fishing. Neal and the woman forget to bring a fishing pole, steal beer to go with their whiskey, become drunk, and fall asleep in the sun totally naked. The two are badly sunburned. Maclean and Paul must get rid of Old Rawhide and return Neal to the women of his family as quickly as possible. Maclean’s wife and her mother become angry with Maclean for not keeping Neal out of trouble. Maclean is forgiven by the women, but they remain upset, and he decides to go fishing again, this time with Paul and their father. This is the Maclean men’s last fishing trip together. Soon after, Paul is beaten to death, presumably because of the gambling debts.


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Much of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It is autobiographical, based on his family experiences as he was raised in a parsonage in western Montana in the early part of the twentieth century. Maclean is the elder son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. He and his...

(The entire section is 1,800 words.)