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The New West: John Maclean’s memoir goes deep behind ‘A River Runs Through It’

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John Maclean’s new memoir, “Home Waters” looks deeply into his father Norman’s iconic novella, “A River Runs Through It.” PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN MACLEAN

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

It has been said and written that “A River Runs Through It,” the motion picture, changed everything in western Montana along with rivers in the Rockies found between New Mexico and Canada. 

Robert Redford’s movie, based on the 1976 novella by Norman Maclean is, looking back now, portrayed as a big bang moment which hastened not only the adoption of fly fishing by millions as an outdoor passion, but also the sale and transformation of former working ranches with water on site into recreation properties.

I don’t need to wax on about how important the “fly-fishing economy” is to the larger Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, home to several near-mythic rivers known for their trout water.

Years before I ever touched a copy of “A River Runs Through It,” I was familiar with the writing of a different Maclean other than Norman. By then, Norman was an English professor at the University of Chicago, a city where I started my career as a violent crime reporter. At the time it was his son, John Maclean, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist for the Chicago Tribune whose byline I read regularly.

One reason: John, more than a generation older, was an alum of the same journalistic training ground as me: the City News Bureau of Chicago.

Only after I moved West to the Greater Yellowstone region, did I pick up a copy of Norman Maclean’s classic reflection about an angling-obsessed family who loved rivers with an almost religious zeal and whose drama is punctuated by the loss of Norman’s younger brother, Paul.  

I wrote about Redford’s filming of the movie around Bozeman and Livingston in the early 1990s and interviewed him.

In both versions, Paul has a penchant for drinking, playing cards and consorting with shady figures, then is murdered. This summer we’re treated to a new book by John Maclean that is a reflection on his father and uncle, the river—the Blackfoot—that he made famous and, interestingly, what really happened to Paul. 

John Maclean’s memoir: “Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River” is a fine read, for it serves as backstory to a slightly embellished tale that romanticized fly fishing so much, it created a shock wave of interest. That has, as an upside, helped bolster calls for river conservation though, as a downside, the resulting feeding frenzy has also spurred more commercialization of angling and spawned user conflicts.

(As a kind of parable, it sparks the question of whether, in a social media age, we should even be writing about the special places we love, knowing that it risks inviting lots of people to overrun natural destinations that can’t handle much human pressure. But that’s another topic).

For years, I’ve been fascinated with how Paul’s end really happened in 1938 because both Norman Maclean and Redford treat it with a cloak of mystery.

Without giving too much away—you really ought to read “Home Waters”—John Maclean reveals that Paul was murdered in Chicago shortly after he started a job in the public relations department at the University of Chicago. Paul had earlier been a young journalist in Montana.

What I savor about the writing related to Paul’s end is its classic digging for facts and presenting them with the narrative method that both John Maclean and I were taught at City News Bureau of Chicago—itself known for being a training ground for young cub reporters.

John would go on to distinguish himself for his international reporting as a diplomatic correspondent, even traveling with Henry Kissinger. During those years, he, just like his dad before him, made summer trips back to the family cabin at Seeley Lake, Montana. 

And, just as Norman had written about wildfire, memorializing the smokejumpers who perished in the Mann Gulch fire outside Helena, John penned a riveting award-winning book, “Fire on the Mountain,” about the tragic Storm King Fire that claimed the lives of 14 firefighters in Colorado in July of 1994.

In “A River Runs Through It,” the Maclean family grieves the loss of Paul, and it is presented as a kind of meditation on the ephemeral, often fickle nature of life and that we peer back through time looking as much for what we want to see as blurring things that give us pain. In the Maclean family, fly fishing was both a source of memory and balm.

The circumstances of Paul’s homicide left me thinking of how a good reporter is continually searching, fueled by curiosity, led on by discoveries of detail and accumulated insight—the exact same way an angler appreciates the allure of rivers and instinctively knows how to read them. 

After Paul died in a Chicago hospital following a severe beating, the Cook County Medical examiner interviewed Norman, John Maclean writes. “My father speculated that Paul had gone wandering through the neighborhood that night, as he had done as a reporter back in Montana, simply to acquaint himself with his surroundings.”

John quoted the actual report in which his father, who had to identify the body, had been interviewed by the coroner. “‘He liked to walk around in odd sections of the city,’ Norman responded to a coroner’s inquest. ‘He was a newspaper reporter by trade, and he was from a small town. He liked to walk around, just to see the town … I had warned him that this was not Montana.’”

Sometimes real-life stories, memoirs that explore classic earlier memoirs, are as fine as the original. In many ways, they are exceeded. This is the case. Great work, John Maclean. You started as a cub reporter but you became the kind of writer we all aspire to become. You did your dad proud.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He also authored of the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399. Read his latest article on renowned actress Glenn Close in the summer 2021 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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