My reconnoitering of my Montana roots began ten years after I rode out of the state in a '52 Chevy, vowing to leave all that mule-minded meanness behind. No more prairie storms and no more thin-lipped cowboys who equated easy talk, thoughtful talk with Eastern effeminacy.
But, I couldn't let go. A recognition of Montana's brand on me and a reconciliation of sorts has come through several writers—my sister, novelist Ivan Doig, and now, most ambivalently, through Norman Maclean.
A River Runs Through It is Maclean's fictionalized recollection of fly-fishing in western Montana with his brother, Paul. Maclean's love of the land and the art of fly-fishing are so strong that they nearly overwhelm the apparent story.
Like most Montanans I learn from confrontations, and so it is fitting that my response to A River Runs Through It deepened after talking about the book with an unabashed fan, Walt Minnick of Boise. Walt knows the state and one of its primary obsessions—fly-fishing—from family visits going back to childhood. He brings his affection for that unique part of the country and his acute powers of observation to his reading of Maclean's novella. Walt reads it as a love story on five levels, each satisfying and complete in itself.
It is as good an explanation, says Walt, of field and stream sport as any written, a fascinating account that rings true to every fly fisherman. Next, it is "a story of a man's love affair with Big Sky Country, and it is in that sense timeless." Walt has fished many of the streams that are settings in the story and notes that Maclean captures the appeal and grandeur of western Montana mostly through reference and allusion. As it happens, I fished the same waters, and remember as a teenager driving 60 miles to our favorite fishing stream in whatever vehicle was running. The beauty we took for granted, just like bagging our limit by noon. Perhaps a visitor, or a native who leaves (Maclean became a distinguished professor of English at the University of Chicago) can best describe the splendor of the place.
Walt continues, "It is also a love story about a bygone era, a lifestyle which has totally disappeared, the one I remember as a child, a country of rough-hewn, backcountry people, of farmhands, lumberjacks and ranchers. It's a life nearly destroyed by tourism, highways, technology. It's clear to me that Maclean wanted to memorialize it, bring it to life."
I remember it well, also, but from a feminine perspective. Where life flows out of the Stockman's Bar, the honkytonks, or the spot across from the race track in Great Falls that starts serving them up at 10 a.m., the options for women are clear. You can be a lady, a rancher, or a barfly. Or leave.
But it was a shame to interrupt Walt. He adds that the book is a human love story, too, noting the affection among brothers and father and sons. This familial love is "deep and passionate, and very little of it is verbal." Commonalities, as well as differences that can never be bridged, but only accepted, are the essence of the book and its most moving aspect to Walt. I found much of this disturbing, however. What the brothers shared, and what I've found at my own core, is a respect for toughness. We might agree with the Maclean brothers that the best blow in any fight is always the first one. What binds us as Montanans—a tendency to let fly with a good punch, verbal or otherwise—may make us socially unacceptable everywhere else. Walt said he considers this tendency among his Montana friends to be a capacity for honest, spontaneous response and nothing to be ashamed of. "They haven't been worn down and plain vanillaized."
Walt has one more point about Maclean's book. "It's a love story about the transcendental unity of nature and man. I saw a lot of Thoreau in that book, and in many ways this theme may be more basic than the human relationships." The story ends: 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 timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
Mountain, water, rock, and fish and man. What matters to Norman Maclean, Walt concludes, is that we maintain that connection.
This piece originally ran in the November/December 1987 issue of Idaho Arts Journal, under the title "Let's Talk About It..."