My home waters are the small brook trout streams in the mountains of the Shenandoah National Park. They are rivers by name — the Hughes, the Piney, the Rapidan, the Conway, the Thornton — but a world-class long jumper could clear bank to bank without a problem in most stretches.
"Home Waters" is the title of the new book by John N. Maclean, the son of Norman Maclean who wrote the classic fly fishing novella "A River Runs Through It," which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt.
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Maclean’s book isn’t a sequel or a follow-up to his dad’s story, a work of fiction combined with autobiographical details centered around the family’s history of fly-fishing the Blackfoot River in Montana and the murder of Norman’s brother, Paul.
John Maclean calls "Home Waters" a companion to "A River Runs Through it," and he set out to answer two questions: What was it like to fish with Norman Mclean, and how did Paul die?
"People really wanted to know what it was like to fish with my dad," Maclean said from the backyard of his Washington D.C. home with cicadas emitting their constant buzz. "I looked at what I already had, and I basically had a thick sketchbook. I sat down and started writing and kept adding things, fresh things. One of the themes of my inquiry had been my Uncle Paul, who is my shadow person. Like him, I’ve gone into journalism. Like him, I’m a fisherman. … In the last couple of years of my dad’s life, I made an effort to talk to people about Paul who had known him."
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Maclean answers those questions in a wonderful book about fathers, sons, brothers and family that turns out to be much more than just answering those two questions.
Fly-fishing with Norman Maclean was a joy — knowledgeable, patient and generous, graceful — and John, who covered the State Department at "The Chicago Tribune" before writing books about wildfires in the West, used his reporting skills to investigate his Uncle Paul’s murder.
"I knew it was not going to be a pleasant thing to do — and it was going to interrupt the nostalgic flavors of ‘Home Waters’ — but I wanted to set the record as straight as I could on how Paul was murdered without getting gory and do it from official documents," Maclean said.
"Home Waters" chronicles his family’s famed fly-fishing history. The idea started small. John wrote a story for a Chicago angling club about catching a prized rainbow trout on a section of the Blackfoot. He turned that story into a piece for Big Sky Journal, and a book editor on vacation in Montana saw the story and asked John, "Would you like to turn this into a book?"
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"I thought about it, and I realized I had been collecting information for something like this most of my adult life," he said.
It is a historical account, but it also provides lessons in history and conservation and adds background and context to "A River Runs Through It." And while definitely not a how-to book, the observant fly-fisher will notice valuable lessons and astute observations of a lifetime on the water.
In the deep and rich canon of fly-fishing literature — which includes the works of Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Harry Middleton, David James Duncan, John Gierach and Chris Dombrowski — "A River Runs Through It" is revered.
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It contains one of the great opening lines, "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing," and one of the great closing paragraphs, "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
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"I am haunted by waters."
The movie is revered, too, and it created an explosion of fly-fishers in the early 1990s just as the pandemic led more people to try it in the past 15 months.
From the outside, it seems like a daunting task for the son to follow up the dad’s book, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1977. Maclean didn’t see it that way.
"Are you going to be intimidated by it or are you going to try and celebrate it and explain it and be companion to it," Maclean explained. "And I hope that I have done the latter."
Maclean comes from a family of wordsmiths. His grandfather was a preacher, his dad an English professor who wrote a classic in his '70s; one son has written books on kayaking in Alaska and another son is a public defender.
"We like to stand up and talk," Maclean said. "It is a family trait, and it comes out of Montana. My dad’s style is taken from campfire storytelling, and it was considered an art form, and you’re supposed to be good at and you’re supposed to practice it and sit there and listen to how people did it well or badly and learn from that."
"Home Waters" also ruminates on a sense of place. For the Macleans, it is a connection to their cabin on Seeley Lake and the nearby Blackfoot River and what that has meant for the family.
I have fished the waters in and around Montana’s Paradise Valley, and the lure of fishing in Big Sky country is with me daily. My connection to "Home Waters" goes beyond fly-fishing. In the winter of 2017, I was undergoing chemotherapy for metastatic colon cancer.
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The chemo was debilitating, causing severe chest discomfort because of vasospasms, which are when coronary arteries constrict reducing the amount of blood that flows. I couldn’t sleep some nights, so I read fly-fishing books, trying to take my mind somewhere else. I re-read "A River Runs Through It" again and was reminded that Norman Maclean took a class from the poet Robert Frost at Dartmouth.
John Maclean provides some background, including the story that Frost was searching for an ending to his poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."
My wife referenced that poem in a 2017 blog post she wrote about our situation.
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."
Turns out, Frost didn’t need another line. The ending was perfect.
Readers will find a connection, too. Perhaps they have fished the Blackfoot and read and watched "A River Runs Through It."
"I did not try to top my dad," Maclean said. "I did not try to imitate him in the writing. I tried to honor him, and answer the question, what was it like to fish with Norman Maclean. I did do that with some humility because I did fish with him. … It didn’t come out easy.
"Writing is a lonely job and I’m suited it for it, but what I’ve discovered is the amount of admirable feeling that is created by ‘A River Runs Through It’ is extraordinary. It does not bring out the worst in people. It brings out the best in people."
In "Home Waters," Maclean continues to the tradition.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Home Waters' connects fly-fishing with family: 'It brings out the best in people'