John Maclean’s “Home Waters” matches well with his father’s classic, “A River Runs Through It”

As I barreled east along the Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania toll roads last week on the way to see my Dad for the first time in months, I had 12 hours to mull the nature of fathers and sons, as well as brothers and brothers, while the audiobook of “A River Runs Through It” played.

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My wife checked out Norman Maclean’s classic for me as traveling sound and a fitting companion to my reading “Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River,” a history of four generations twined with Montana’s Blackfoot River and fly fishing by Maclean’s son, John.

The book and the audiobook of “Home Waters” went on sale on Tuesday.

Part of me admires a son secure enough to wade into the waters that his father covered in classic fashion. That’s guts, real chutzpah.

John Maclean, author of “Home Waters,” on the porch of the cabin at Seeley Lake with a largemouth bass, 1947.
Credit: John Maclean’s personal collection

But Maclean takes a different tack than his father and writes more of a history with details of the Blackfoot and other Montana rivers, characters and fly fishing, as well as family facts. Those historical details reminded me of Herman Melville recounting whaling minutiae in “Moby Dick.”

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Take Maclean writing of the Bunyan Bug, a fly rugged enough to handle rushing big waters. In the chapter 4, “The River of the Road to the Buffalo.” Maclean wrote this sentence as lead-in to the Bunyan Bug: “The most acclaimed fisher of the river in those days was an eccentric song-and-dance man, rod builder and fly tier who called himself Paul Bunyan and who on occasion hopped around Missoula on a pogo stick.” That may be the only sentence to include both “pogo stick” and “fly tier.”

Maclean wrote that in the 1920s his father bought some early Bunyan Bugs tied by Paul Bunyan (born Norman Edward Lee Means in West Virginia in 1899). The Bunyan Bug played a pivotal role in a significant scene in “A River Runs Through It.”

Throughout “Home Waters,” Maclean shows that he’s a real writer. But he’s also a real reporter with a long career for the Chicago Tribune.

In chapter 8, “Fathers and Sons,” he recounted a nugget of Chicago newspaper history related to a “A River Runs Through It” not receiving the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1976. None was awarded that year because there were no “distinguished” entries. The story is too long to recount, but it involves an outraged Herman Kogan, then Sun-Times book editor and chair of the Pulitzer committee that year, the Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner, Kogan’s son, Rick, of the Tribune and Maclean.

The reportorial skills of Maclean show in chapter 6, “ `Paul! Paul!’, “ where he explains what happened to his uncle Paul, the role played by Brad Pitt in the movie, “A River Runs Through It.” Maclean did grunt reporting work to find what details there was of the death of his uncle and delivers the devastating ambiguity, heightened by the straightforward style he used in relaying the facts.

John Maclean, author of “Home Waters,” fishing the upper Blackfoot River in the fall. Credit: Alec Underwood

John Maclean, author of “Home Waters,” fishing the upper Blackfoot River in the fall.
Alec Underwood

He snapped off the chapter by ripping out my guts with the final paragraph:

“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.”

I want to steal the phrase “the light of remembrance and expectation.”

“Home Waters” is not beach reading; it’s more apt for absorbing during a week away, say along the Au Sable River.

The lower Blackfoot River in early winter. Credit: John Maclean

The lower Blackfoot River in early winter.
John Maclean

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