A River Runs Through It is a small book. Something over 100 pages in most editions. And it’s the only “book” Norman Maclean ever wrote. (There is a published but unfinished nonfiction book about the Mann Gulch Fire, Young Men and Fire, and a few long short stories, published with A River Runs Through It in some editions.)
On the surface, A River Runs Through It is a story about fly fishing on Montana rivers. I am not interested in fly fishing. What the book is really about is love—not romantic love, but the love among a father and a mother and their two sons, with a tiny bit of romance thrown in for good measure. It contains elements of some old stories. There are hints of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, and the story of the Prodigal Son.
Unlike many books, but like many of my favorite books, there’s a lot of ambiguity in its pages. You have to pay attention. And it doesn’t end in what many readers would consider a satisfactory way.
Again, there’s some ambiguity there.
Maclean doesn’t provide many answers, but he does deliver a lot of questions. And that means the story stays with you long after you close the book. So much so that, like me, you’ll be inclined to open it again (and again) sometime to see what kinds of questions it asks this time.