You will not discover much about John N. Maclean in his new and graceful and compelling book, “Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River” (Custom House) and that was his intention.
“There is some of me in there, of course,” he told me on the telephone from his home in Washington D.C. “But I do not consider this a memoir.”
But it is filled with memories.
Maclean and his family lived to two worlds. In Chicago his father, Norman, spent decades as an esteemed professor at the University of Chicago; his wife, Jessie, was an equally admired U. of C. administrator. But every June, with daughter Jean, one year older than John, they traveled to a cabin in Montana. That is where Norman had grown up and where he learned to fish and where he would decades later write a book about all that.
Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories” was that book and it pleasantly shadows “Home Waters,” which greatly expands what we might already know about Montana, fly fishing and the meaning of family.
John Maclean spent most of his career as a newspaperman, most of that as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in Washington, D.C. After retiring in 1994 he has written books, the first five of them about wildland fires, all of them good and shadowed by tragedy.
“This book started as a fish story,” he says. It was published in a small magazine and a couple of years later a book editor named Peter Hubbard was on vacation in Montana and read it and started a relationship with Maclean. “It’s taken three years and God almighty I’m glad I finally got this thing done.” Maclean says.
Or as he writes in the book, “Fishermen know the wonder of being attached to a living but unseen power that lies below the surface. The connection between my family, the Blackfoot River, and Montana has been like that, a tie rooted in memory and rekindled each year.”
Here’s one memory and a charming one.
When he and his sister Jean were in their early teens, his father them to his classroom. He was teaching a story about a fish, the very big fish in Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” “(My father) asked his students at one point about the technical problem Hemingway faced in trying to tell a book-length story with only one human figure, the Cuban fisherman Santiago, who hooks the giant marlin. Who besides Santiago could play the role of a main character and provide the conflict necessary to move the story along? he asked.
“I thought it was the easiest question I’d ever heard in a classroom, but it stunned the students into silence. After a pause of embarrassing length, I raised my hand and my father called on me.
‘The fish!’ I said.
“My dad took a beat, smiled a beatific smile and said, ‘That’s my son!’”
The book travels back to 1806 and offers much valuable history, geography and colorful characters. It also dives into the great Maclean mystery, the death of the romantic and mysterious character Paul Maclean, Norman’s younger brother and a masterful fisherman, newspaper reporter and charismatic if doomed soul. Giving details not found in the book or 1992 film version, John does a deep dive into that life, which came to a brutal end on the South Side of Chicago.
“My father never let go,” John says. “My father was haunted by Paul’s death.”
He captures that powerfully in print, writing, “Many years later my father would come down from the cabin to the lake in the evening when the world had turned to gentleness, and I would sit on the bank watching for a fish to rise. Without acknowledging my presence but knowing I was there he would call out ‘Paul! Paul!’ his face nearly incandescent with the light of remembrance and expectation.”
He captures so much in this book.
After retiring from teaching, Norman devoted himself full-time to writing. He was working on a book and wrote a letter to a friend confessing that “I would rather spend my time fly fishing than in writing a mediocre story about fishing because I am better than a mediocre as a fisherman.”
But one “stormy fall day,” Norman handed to John and his wife Frances, who has been a feature writer for the Sun-Times, a 100-some-page typed manuscript.
The storm kept them inside and they read. When they finished, they found Norman sitting in an easy chair by a roaring fire. “We told him … that the story was perfect as it stood, no editing required. I told him I hadn’t read anything so good since Shakespeare,” John writes. “I hadn’t read anything so authentic about fishing since …Hemingway’s best fishing story, ‘Big Two-Hearted River’.”
The book was rejected by two East Coast publishers and was published by the University of Chicago Press, its first-ever work of fiction with the first edition highlighted by striking illustrations by Robert Williams. (“Home Waters” features stunning art by Wesley W. Bates.)
The book sold and sold and sold (and still sells, having justifiably made its way made into school classroom reading lists). Reviews constituted a fountain of praise. The book became the leading finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1976. My father, Herman Kogan, then the book editor of the Sun-Times, chaired the Pulitzer fiction jury that year and put the book at the top of its recommended list. He wrote in a cover letter, “Its qualities are copious. The range of emotions and insights are broad and compelling and its concern with life in all its aspects has, despite the narrative’s specific time and place, a sense of the universal.”
The book did not win, in part because then Tribune editor Clayton Kirkpatrick, a member of the Pulitzer board, which has final say for awarding the prize, chose to override their recommendation and decided no award for fiction that year, saying, “the nominees were not as distinguished as we would have liked.”
Maclean worked at the Tribune then and fired off a letter to Kirkpatrick that defended the book and noting that the Tribune was one of only a handful of newspapers that did not even review the book.
But the book was immensely popular and made Norman what John calls, “a public personality.” To Montana came thousands of who wanted to fish with him.
John, his wife and their two sons “kept connected to Montana but it was a long haul and the visits were irregular.” Still, he writes movingly of the last fishing trip taken with his father.
Norman Maclean died in 1990 at 87 and after his death came the posthumously published, also brilliant, “Young Men and Fire,” and the film version of “A River Runs Through It.”
That 1992 film was directed by Robert Redford and starred Brad Pitt as Paul, Craig Sheffer as Norman, Tom Skerritt as Rev. Maclean, Brenda Blethyn as Clara and Emily Lloyd as Norman’s wife, Jessie.
John is a fan, saying, “I like the movie even though I guess I’m not supposed to. A lot of my fishing friends complain, ‘But’s it’s not the book.’ No, it’s not, but the book and the film are beloved to this day.”
In the book, Maclean writes, “Memory can and should be more than a bridge to the past. It’s also a way to see yourself as a thread in a broad fabric long in the making.
Among his memories is this of his grandfather: “The Reverend drummed lessons into the boys, but none was delivered more forcefully than the exhortation, ‘Do something great!”
That lesson obviously carried into the next generation. This is a great book.