Norman MacLean

A River Runs Through It

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A River Runs Through It Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature.  This 25-page guide for “A River Runs Through It” by Norman MacLean includes detailed pages summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Oneness with Nature and Are We Our Brothers Keepers?.

Plot Summary

A River Runs through It, by Norman Maclean, is the coming-of-age story of the author and his brother, Paul. Sons of a Scottish Presbyterian minister and his wife, the two boys grow up in a small town in western Montana at the turn of the last century. Born in 1902, Maclean wrote this story as part memoir, part elegy for his brother and a beautiful way of life in Montana, both of which are now lost.

Set primarily in the summer of 1937, this semi-autobiographical novel describes the summer before Paul’s death. The plot moves back and forth in time, as Norman, the narrator and protagonist, recounts family history and events that underpin what is happening in the present day. Maclean tells his tale through the family stories, techniques, and philosophy surrounding fly fishing. The natural world forms an essential motif in the novel, symbolizing spiritual power and healing fellowship.

Written when Maclean was in his seventies, the novel attempts to immortalize a time, place, and people, now lost to the author: a more brutal yet innocent time, an unspoiled landscape, a brother’s uncanny talents for fishing and trouble, and a father’s love, support, and guidance. Told from a first person limited point of view, Norman speaks nostalgically, but not sentimentally, of the events that have most shaped his life, in order to understand and celebrate them.

Paul, three years younger than Norman, is a charismatic, charming, drinking, gambling, hard-living reporter, living in Helena, Montana. Norman, more serious and steady, is married to his great love, Jessie. He lives with his wife’s family in the tiny town of Wolf Creek, Montana. Their parents are retired to Missoula, Montana.

That summer, Norman and his parents watch helplessly as Paul’s life careens out of control: he is arrested for public drunkenness and brawling and they suspect he has large gambling debts that he cannot pay. Norman tries to intervene by taking Paul fishing; the only way he knows to connect with his brother and access the grace and camaraderie available to them when they fish together.

Jessie Maclean has brother troubles of her own. She convinces Norman to take her brother, Neal, who is also an alcoholic, fishing too. That fishing expedition is a disaster; Neal gets drunk by stealing all of the group’s beer and defiles the beauty of the river by having sex with a prostitute on a sandbar in the middle of it, while he is supposed to be fishing with Norman and Paul. Like many comedic episodes in the novel, this incident is both funny and deeply sad.

Later that summer, Paul and Norman experience a perfect day while fishing with their father. Though Paul and Norman connect over their shared love for fishing and their father, Norman is unable to reach his brother to talk to him about the gambling debts or his drinking.

The next May, Paul is beaten to death with the butt of a revolver in a drunken brawl. The whole family is devastated but unsurprised. Reverend Maclean strives to accept what has happened to his son, and he and Norman help each other deal with what has happened and love Paul, without understanding him. In the end, that is the message carried to the reader too. We are our brother’s keepers: when we believe we cannot help them, we must still try, even if all we have to offer is our love.

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