Rating: Must Read
Level: Easy narrative, short (just over 200 pages).
This book consist of three short stories: A River Runs Through It; Logging and Pimping and “Your Pal, Jim”; and USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky. All are quite short at 104, 20, and 90, respectively. The first is his most famous story, and the one that was made into a movie. The movie actually does a pretty good job, but of course misses some things, yet often quote directly, which is always a nice touch. It is a somewhat meandering story of his life in relation to his brother, as well as his brother in law (which the movie downplays). There are many funny stories and anecdotes of his early adult life, underpinning the story is that of needing help, and helping ‘brothers’ (of which he includes his BiL, in contrast).
The second story is about his summers spent in a logging camp, and his competition with ‘Jim’. He showcases his own pride, but it is also one of the best portrayals of love/hate relationships between men, in such a short story. It is also quite funny. The final story is about a summer working for the US Forest Service. Again, themes of pride, respect for his boss, and dislike for ‘the cook’, but this story has an point/ending you may not be suspecting, in that they attempt to rob a casino. Not quite, but that makes it sound more dramatic, more of being cardsharks in a poker room, that they know will end in fights and them running away with money.
While the other two aren’t quite as good as his more famous first story, try to buy a copy that has all three instead of just A River Runs Through It. It is the same price or cheaper, and if you ever want to read an author because of a story that was recommended, buying the anthology book is a good way to decide if you want to read more. In Maclean’s, these three are his only writings for general audiences (apparently he also wrote a field manual for the Navy and a textbook while teach at Chicago). That is my general tip for buying books.
Maclean is a fascinating person. Famous to me for fly fishing and the movie made from this book. He also worked for the Forest Service and spent summers working in logging camps. He spent most of his life as an English professor at the University of Chicago; the publisher of this book. Interestingly, this is the only fiction the press has ever published. Again, fascinatingly, he refers to it as fiction in the sense that they are stories that he believes to be true, somewhere between historical fiction and autobiography. This book was a huge success and then he died, which is truly tragic. He was old, so, not tragic in that way, but if he had more stories in him, I’d read every one of them. His uniqueness also stems from his time and place in life. He was born over 100 years ago, but overlapped with my life. However, in some instances his life seems even longer before the modern are due to living out in the intermountain west. The jobs and aspects of his daily life as a teenager/young adult seem so foreign now as I write this.
I’m not a big highlighter, I don’t like my books marked up, but I intend to read back through this a note a few things. There are at least 10 worth note in A River, and maybe three to five in the other stories. Half the quotes from the latter made it into the movie, fortunately. One of my favorite quotes, and the movie fails a bit at this, as I said above, though there is still a focus on the brotherly relationship, is his bit about once brothers reach a certain age, the question of who can beat who, if not settled, must be put down and left alone. This maybe stuck out more to me than others. My brother and I are unusually close in age (7 months), so the question of the better fighter (me) still looms in our 30s, and now I also have twin sons.
The second two stores are just great short stories of summer work and life in manual labor a century ago. Though perhaps logging camps today aren’t as different, certainly the pride/personality differences he highlights remain. I think anyone interested that time or life, would find these stores interesting. I worked for a summer in Montana when I was 19, which got me into fly fishing, which naturally led to this book (I spent time on the river the movie was filmed, but not his actual river), so the notion of summer work or migrant (by choice) work is familiar, in some ways, to me (though, I moved on and did not continue the life).
However, A River, stands on its own a great American work of literature. You will not find as much about marriage/family, brothers (in all senses), the existential issues of family and needing help, fishing, fighting, drinking, the Westminster Standards, or outdoor life, all packed into 100 pages in any other book. Sometimes when I read a book, I can become almost frustrated, because I read it and think, if I ever could write well, this is how I would want to write. Maclean had me putting this book down in multiple points to stop and thing, this is exactly how I feel and the perfect way to write this. This is easily one of my favorite books of all time, probably top three in fiction (broadly defined), and if you are interesting in anything mentioned, this book is a must read.