Fly fishing

If you’re not a fan of “A River Runs Through It,” it can only be because you haven’t read it yet. Norman Maclean’s 1976 novella of family dynamics plays out on Montana’s Blackfoot River and is an enduring literary classic. The 1992 movie of the same name, directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt and Tom Skerritt, is one of the rare Hollywood renditions worthy of its roots.

Journalist and author John N. Maclean

John N. Maclean

Now Maclean’s son, journalist John N. Maclean, has written a family chronicle that is being hailed as the lyrical but true backstory to his father’s short novel. According to a review in The Washington Post, by former Montana newspaper editor Nick Ehli, “Home Waters” touches on family lore, but also fishing, geology and the threat of environmental degradation.

After reading Ehli’s interview with the younger Maclean, I pulled “A River Runs Through It” off my shelf for a re-read. I now have “Home Waters” on order at a favorite independent bookstore. But a few things from Ehli’s review are worth mentioning here:

Norman Maclean was a prominent English professor at the University of Chicago. His son, John, worked as a newspaper reporter for 30 years, mostly as a Washington D.C. correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, then turned his reporting and writing talents to award-winning nonfiction books about wildland fires in the American West. He nods at how those diverged backgrounds influenced his father’s writing, and his own:

“I didn’t spend my career teaching Shakespeare and Wordsworth,” he says. “I spent my career writing hard news. That’s me.”

“Home Waters” started as an essay about fishing he wrote for a local anglers club which became a story for a regional magazine. That’s where a book editor found it and pushed for more. From the Post story:

“I thought this was going to be a big fish story, but then it turned into something very different,” says Maclean, now 78. “I don’t call it a memoir. I call it a chronicle. A memoir is about you, and this isn’t all about me.”

I bookmarked the review, and highlighted Maclean’s comments, as a reminder of several things:

  • Journalism seems, to some, to strip the literary elegance from writing. Not so. It just looks at the world through a different lens that sees things through a clear lens. Case in point: Maclean reports and writes how his Uncle Paul, played by Pitt, really died.
  • The biggest stories often start with a smaller story, and build from there. Maclean didn’t set out to write an epic book; he wrote a piece that served a certain audience. From there, he didn’t force it as much as he followed it.
  • Memoir does not mean self-indulgence. It, like any good essay or book, — even fiction — draws its strength from reporting. And when written, it must be as much about others as it is about the author.
  • You’re not too old to write your book, if that’s what you want to do. You just need to start somewhere.

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