Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It is in the main about family, and in particular about brothers, and on the side about fly fishing and art. The underline on family and brothers is “help,” on fishing is “religion” and on art is “suffering.” My family is not all together different, except where it counts most—fly fishing is conspicuously absent, as is a father to instruct it and the religion that accompanies it. The void acts as a placeholder for—nothing. No “thing” in the Augustinian sense of evil as an absence of good. I call it “pain” because that’s what fills the empty space that a father once occupied.
Maclean’s gift of story-telling relieves my pain on two counts. First, he gives me insight into the mysterious bond of brothers, the kind that Shakespeare spoke of in denigrating beds and honoring scars. He showed me that rites of passage occur in one-parent households the same as they do in two. The leaves of his book are healing like the leaves of John’s tree in the New Jerusalem. It too is fed by a river that runs through it. Both are open to anyone who wants to fish for words of life, although the Maclean family would say that they can’t be found by bait fishing because “grace comes by art.”
Secondly, the Gospels encourage those who fish and find the words of life to become in turn “fishers of men.” In working through his own tragedy, Maclean’s words invited me to transcend the pain associated with the guilt of single-parent inadequacies. I was caught in his net of words. He ends the novel as an aged man alone on the river with nearly all those he loved and did not understand dead…he hopes for a fish to rise—I did. He tells me:
The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.