Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through It

Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through It

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Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through It explores many feelings and experiences of one “turn of the century” family in Missoula, Montana. In both the movie, directed by Robert Redford, and the original work of fiction we follow the Mcleans through their joys and sorrows. However, the names of the characters and places are not purely coincidental. These are the same people and places known by Norman Mclean as he was growing up. In a sense, A River Runs Through It is Mclean’s autobiography. Although these autobiographical influences are quite evident throughout the course of the story they have deeper roots in the later life of the author as he copes with his life’s hardships.

The characters in the movie and book are taken straight from Mclean’s life. From the hard working, soft centered, minister father, to the drunken, “down on his luck”, brother-in-law, Neil. The character of Paul appears the be the most true to life member of Norman’s family. The audience quickly becomes familiar with Paul and his quick-tempered, always ready for anything attitude. This is evident in the beginning of the story with Paul’s frequent phrase “...with a bet on the to make things interesting (Mclean 6).” “It was almost funny and sometimes not so funny to see a boy always wanting to bet on himself and almost sure to win (Mclean 5).” Unlike Norman who was rigorously home schooled every morning, while Paul seemed to escape this torment. The boys would spend their afternoons frolicking in the woods and fishing the Big Blackfoot River. The differences that developed between Paul’s and Norman’s fishing styles become evident in the published versions of Mclean’s life as well as his real life. Norman followed the traditional style taught by their preacher-father, ten and two in a four -count rhythm, like a metronome.

The four-count rhythm, of course, is functional. The one count takes the line, leader, and fly off the water; the two count tosses them seemingly straight into the sky; the three count was my father’s way of saying that at the top the leader and fly have to be given a little beat of time to get behind the line as it is starting forward; the four count means put on the power and throw the line into the rod until you reach ten o’clock-then check-cast, let the fly and leader get ahead of the line, and coast to a soft and perfect landing (Mclean 4).

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Paul, on the other hand, was less controlled by their father. Therefore he was able to develop his own style of casting. This new technique in which he dubbed “shadow casting” was able to draw the fish to the surface using only the shadow of the fly. “...That the fish are alerted by the shadows of flies passing over the water by the first casts, so hit the fly the moment it touches the water (Mclean 21).” Among other things, Paul was also grew up with a bit of gambling and drinking streak in him. Paul’s habits did not just exist in the book, these characteristics of Paul were carried over from Norman’s real life experiences with his brother. “...Paul lived mostly by instinct and bravado, learning early on to gamble, drink and fight (Eastman 54).” Paul’s tendancies of to get into the high stakes poker games without a clear head and then try to fight his way out of debt was what eventually leads to his demise; both in real life and in A River Runs Through it.

Although the documentation of Norman Mclean’s life is very similar to his real life, there are some subtle differences that exist. In the wide screen version of A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert Redford, the middle part of the movie is taken up with Norman’s courting of Jessie, his real life wife. This is different from the book because as the book progresses, Norman is already married to Jessie. One other difference between the movie and the author’s real life is a small scene in which the Mclean boys “borrow” a rowboat and run the rapids of a nearby river. Although untold in the story these parts are part of the creative license taken by Redford in order to make for a better movie. These two segments appeal to both the adventurous and caring in the audience.

Another difference between the documented versions of A River Runs Through It and Mclean’s life is concerning where he lived. In the book and movie versions, Norman and Paul spend all their lives in Montana except for when Norman and Paul both attend Dartmouth. In reality, Paul had followed Norman to Chicago, where Norman was teaching at the University of Chicago. It was Norman who got a job for Paul in the university’s press relation’s department. Perhaps what happens next in the deviations from the story is one of the most disturbing. Instead of dying while fighting in his own home territory, Paul died in the unfamiliar streets of Chicago, a victim of several severe blows to the head.

It is disturbing to hear of the real life death of Paul Mclean, however it soothes his brother Norman to write that Paul died fighting with all of the bones in his right hand broken. “Like many Scottish ministers before him, he had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that his son had died fighting (Mclean 103).” This line near the end of the story not only tells how Preacher Mclean must have felt in the book, but it symbolises the fantasy that Norman has that his brother did die fighting and not in a simple robbery. This gives him the piece of mind knowing that Paul’s soul will rest peacefully.

There are other issues that writing of a different death for his brother helps Norman over come. Norman Mclean was by no means a settled man. He was known to drink particularly stiff drinks at parties and after his retirement spoke of his neglect as a parent. “Norman, like his father before him, was notorious for deflecting personal discussions, although after he had retired from teaching he was surprisingly open about his parental shortcomings. ‘It’s a real sorrow of mine. I feel that I never picked up my children at the age when I should have.’...(Eastman 100).” The illness of his wife was severely disheartening because her death took almost ten years. She suffered from emphysema but continued to smoke up until shortly before her death. This time was extremely hard for the Mcleans, “...Jessie’s illness seemed to have stretched on forever, spreading a pall over the family for years (Eastman 101).” When he finally did receive news of his beloved wife’s death, Norman was in the hospital battling one of his bouts of depression and alcoholism. The times to follow were not any better. His daughter Jean explains, “‘The five to seven years after my mother died were incredibly tumultuous [for my father],’ Jean admits, ‘when he was down as far as a person can get down’ (Eastman 101).” With encouragement from his family, friends, and especially his son-in-law Joel, Norman Mclean was finally able to overcome his tough times and begin his writings.

After all the joys of the first half of his life, Norman Mclean was overcome with severe sorrow. In his writing of A River Runs Through It, these joys are evident as are a hint of the sorrow. But in order to see the important autobiographical influences in his work, one must look not at the feelings of the time being described, but at the feelings of the time the story/biography is being written. It was written at a time when Norman Mclean was feeling deep sorrow for the loss of his loved ones and in order to help him cope without returning to drinking and depression, Norman wrote stories. In these stories he was able to remember the people he loved the most in their glory days. Paul in the Big Blackfoot shadow casting for trout and Jessie at home in Montana where everyone felt at ease with her warm hearted love and sense of humor. In addition, Norman was able to use his own creative influence in order to adjust events to a manner that made him feel a little more at ease about the passing of his and others’ lives. So as it turns out, it appears that Norman Mclean wrote his stories not for the reader, but for himself.

Works Cited


Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It And Other Stories. 1976. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
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