Friday, May 15, 2009

A River Runs Through It

It’s not very often I think Brad Pitt is the less gorgeous of two men.  But look at these photos.  Directly above, we have Brad Pitt in the movie A River Runs Through It (Craig Sheffer, to the left, plays Norman Maclean).  Brad’s role was the troubled, brilliant Paul Maclean.  In the top photo, the real Paul Maclean. 

Who wins the handsome-ness contest? 

warning:  movie/book spoiler ahead!

The striking Mr. Maclean, with his drill-right-through you gaze, is only one reason I love A River Runs Through It—the movie and the book.  Mostly the book.  Written by Paul’s brother, Norman, it’s a painful, lovely depiction of the limits of a family’s devotion, and what happens when one of them dies too young.      

“The world is full of bastards - the number ever increasing the further one gets from MISSOULA, MONTANA.”  from the book 

The story is set in my town of Missoula, where the real family lived.  Here’s a photo of their house, a few blocks from my neighborhood. 


Across the street is the Presbyterian church where Norman and Paul’s father, played in the movie by Tom Skerritt, was the minister.

“My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe.  To him all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.” from the book      


And here’s the Maclean family in 1911. 













Both Maclean sons attended Dartmouth College.  Both chose careers in writing—Paul as a journalist, and Norman as a professor of literature at the University of Chicago.  Here’s a photograph of Norman at Dartmouth... 


…and his wife, Jessie Burns Maclean, in 1934 (photo by Norman Maclean). 


Norman Maclean, teaching at the University of Illinois in Chicago. 

The Montana depicted in the book, and well-captured in the movie, rings true to my heart.  My grandparents were contemporaries of Norman Maclean, and casual acquaintances.  The patterns of their lives had a number of similarities.  Though I wasn’t alive when the story is set, I feel I know it at some level—absorbed, maybe, through what my grandparents shared with me of their lives.  

The stories, for instance.  Missoula is minutes away from the Big Blackfoot River, which is now called simply the Blackfoot.  There were stories of streams and forests and “characters:” of men being men—and women being men, too.  People in trouble with liquor.  Stories about fishing…always fishing.  And these alongside the taken-for-granted values about literature; education at good colleges;  politics; lawmaking.  

“Norman Maclean was not responsible for Montana's fly-fishing tourism boom and would never have wanted it,” says his son, writer John Maclean.

Did I mention fishing?  My grandfather was of the same fly-fishing generation as the Maclean brothers.  I remember his slow-gaited tread down to the dock and the patterns his line made on the glassy water of Placid Lake on an early summer morning. 

When this grandfather was a child, he lost his younger brother in the river that runs through Missoula.  The two brothers were fishing near their home with a cousin.  I don’t know if they were fly fishing or using bait.  What I know is that they were by the river, and the younger brother didn’t come back.   


A River Runs Through It—The Clark Fork River downstream of confluence with the Blackfoot River, a few minutes from my house. 

There was a current of melancholy in my grandfather throughout his long and professionally successful life.  I think I inherited a sort of an intergenerational sadness that surfaces sometimes, and attached itself to Maclean’s story the first time I read it.  This river in no small part drew me back to Montana.  But it also scares me, and puts me in my place.     

These favorite words from A River Runs Through It are some of the loveliest I’ve ever read: 

“Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn't. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. 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 words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters." 

from the book


Saz said...

I didnt read all of this in case it spoiled it for me, as I recently bought it as I have never seen it..this weekend then!!

Zuzana said...

You always manage to capture a plethora of sentiments in your posts, that reflect a genuine life and past.
I think I so understand what you are trying to convey, but I can not express it in words.
Your grandfathers story is a very touching one.

Brad Pitt doesn't come nowhere close to the charisma of Paul Maclean. I think I must be the only woman in the world that thinks here is nothing to that actor whatsoever, when it comes to his looks.
I loved the movie though and have seen it a few times; how extraordinary that it takes place in your home town.

The colour sunset picture is stunning; did you take it?

Unknown said...

I feel for your grandfather. It must have been horrible to not only loose a brother; but to be there when it happened.

I've read the book and books are always better than the movies. But reading about the 'real' people surrounding the story, makes one see the story in a new light.

The Clever Pup said...

This is an absolutely wonderful post. Beautifully written and informative.

Was the movie filmed in Missoula too? I think I'll have to rent it.

Thanks for sharing this.


P.S. I'm gonna catch you re:sitemeter!

Frugal Scholar said...

Love love love that book. Thanks for this beautiful post.

Kat Mortensen said...

I have never seen this film, but I will have to seek it out now.
Your post was beautiful and captivating.
I love the name "Missoula", what is it's origin?
A writer-friend of mine in British Columbia just lost her husband (he was 80 and she is 76). Although born in Saskatchewan, she moved to New York where she met her husband (he had emigrated from Poland after WW II). They moved to Missoula, Montana in '65,where their two daughters were born. They lived there for 3 years before finally settling in B.C.

Your town looks quaint and charming -- a place I wouldn't mind visiting.


Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Lovely post. It's always wonderful to feel personally connected to a beloved book or movie, as you must with this one. A beautiful movie, it always makes me cry.

Seeker said...

What a great post, dear.

Hope everything is ok with you.

Have a fab weekend


Eleonora Baldwin said...

Brava, this is yet another GREAT post, SM!

I've seen the movie a few times, how extraordinary that it takes place in your home town! Was it filmed there?

Love the sunset photo of the river running through it...

Woman in a Window said...

OK, it's official, I'm reading this book. A friend has been urging me and from what I've read here, oh, do I have any choice. Beautiful.

Cynthia L. H. said...

Brilliant and beautiful post.
I am moved.
Well done. Emotional, inspirational, yet with a turbulent current running through...
I shall return tomorrow and read it all through again when I'm not tired.
Thank you,

Jean said...

What a fascinating post, thank you. I'm not familiar with the book or the film, but suddenly I want to rent the film.

Beautifully written.

Woman in a Window said...

(Hey, I had written the word Confluence as title for a poem a few days ago and then left it there in my drafts, accidentally posted it, pulled it, and then left it there some more. Just that one word. Last night I came here late and read your post. It helped me to my poem. It's on my back door if you care to look. Nothing grand but I did want to say thank you. So, thanks~)

LenoreNeverM♡re said...

Such a great post! I learn new things everyday...appreciate you & your great posts lady! Lovely weekend to you... ~XO*

sallymandy said...

FFF: Sorry! I didn't even think about the spoiler effect, but I added a sentence about it after you commented. Hope you LOVE the book.

Protege: Thanks, kind friend. I did not take that photo, and I don't think there was a name on the site where I found it.

I had no idea the movie made it around the world so far until all of you commented. It's exciting to me that so many of my friends online have seen it.

Sher: Kind words about my grandfather; thank you. I did like the book better than the movie, but I thought the movie was also outstanding. Robert Redford kept very close to the book and I feel he captured the very best parts of it very well.

Thanks, CP. The movie wasn't filmed in Missoula but in a smaller town not too far away--one that still has retained more of its old-town look. I'll have to tell you about the sitemeter thing in an email. !

Thank you, FS. I'm glad you liked the book and my post.

Poetikat: Thank you; the town is still charming, I guess, depending on what you compare it to. As I told Hazel, the movie was filmed in another smaller town, but there really is a lot of that old charm in many parts of Montana.

I believe the name Missoula refers to the river that goes through town--a Native American name.

Thanks for sharing that interesting story about your friend from B.C. This part of the continent is so vast geographically, but there are many cultural ties between the parts. My grandparents used to go north to Calgary and Edmonton to shop because my grandmother couldn't find things that met her refined taste in the whole state of Montana.

Pamela: It makes me cry, too, so even as I love it, I don't watch the movie that often.

Thanks, Seeker. Everything's pretty darn good with me.

Lola: It's so wonderful that people in Italy have seen this--or did you see it when you lived in the states? It was not filmed in my town, but another one not far away. I like that sunset photo too.

WinW: I think you'll like this book, being the wordsmith that you are. In addition to the wonderful story, Maclean was an artist with the sentence.

Such kind words, dear Cynthia. Thank you.

Oh, NSM! Please go get it and tell me what you think.

Thank you, Lenore...Having a lovely weekend and hope you are, too.


aims said...

I had no idea you are from Missoula.

I've been there a number of times - camped in the KOA - been to the university.

I dated a fellow who was studying at the university. He is married now with a child - but still lives in Missoula.

I haven't been back in about 13 years....but it is beautiful! The river links everything together. I always loved the drive from here to Missoula - following the river as it drew me onwards.

When I saw the movie I cried. Many times.

Patsy said...

Thank you for this very interesting glimpse into the life and times and geography of this family and yours.
I did see the movie.

Something about Brad Pitt that makes him alluring even though the other guy is more handsome....


Anonymous said...

A River Runs Through It is one of my favorite movies. How interesting that you have a personal connection to it. It must make your life more real as well as the book.


Veronica Wald said...

Oh, how I enjoyed your post about the Maclean family's intersection with your life! Here's a brief post about Norman's intersection with my life:

I hope, if you have not already, that you will get a copy of The Norman Maclean Reader ( It is fascinating and wonderful, end-to-end.

Your excerpts from A River Runs Through It brought tears to my eyes, as they always do. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Es una obra maravillosa, llena de realismo y naturaleza. Me encantó.

John Jairo Acosta Velasquez
Medellin- Colombia

svgklingon said...

I very much appreciated this post about your connection to A River Runs Through It.
Shortly after I moved to Missoula to attend UM, my only brother was killed in a train accident in Whitefish.
We both shared a deep love of fishing and the beauty of Montana and this wonderful story always brings a tear to my eye and a flood of great memories.
Few stories are as endearing.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I, too, admire the MacLean story.

One correction though: he did not teach at the University of Illinois, at Chicago. He taught at the much more exclusive and vaunted University of Chicago. There is a real difference.

Anonymous said...

I've always loved this movie. Even as a teenager, when a story like this would not have much appeal. To this day I cannot help but slip into nastaliga and reflect back on my own life's memories. With many more to come I can only imagine how when that time comes I will also be faced upon my own reflection. One comes to a point when you realize the best part of life has happened. The family that has grown, the friends made and lost, all while the scenery remains the same.

Skeptic said...

The book was assigned to my son’s freshman man honors class at the Univ of Delaware in 1980. He , a suburban kid who’d never fished, was so taken with it that he urged me to read it. And I, a city girl, who’d never see a lake until after I’d graduated from college, was so drawn to Norman Macclean’s writing that I saw fly fishing as the transcendent encounter that he experienced.
“A river Runs Through It” is one of the few books that has remained a touching presence for me. And, although no film can capture it completely, I thought that Robert Redford sensitively conveyed as much of it as film could.