26 July 2011

A River Runs Through It

I recently read Norman Maclean's novella A River Runs Through It. The story is famous for its detailed and beautiful descriptions of fly fishing. Yet, the fly fishing in itself is not the main message. I think the story is about how difficult it is to understand and help people, even your own family. The fly fishing is a metaphor for this theme.

Norman is the narrator. His brother Paul gambles and gets into fights, but happens to be an outstanding fisherman -- way better than Norman. The two brothers were taught fishing by their minister father. Paul is not the only young man in constant trouble. Norman's brother-in-law Neal drinks and whores. Norman and his father don't know how to help Paul. Norman's wife's family don't know how to help Neal.

Norman and his father worry about Paul's troubled nature.

"You are too young to help anybody and I am too old," he said. "By help I don't mean a courtesy like serving chokecherry jelly or giving money.

"Help," he said, "is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly.

"So it is," he said, using an old homiletic transition, "that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don't know what part to give or maybe we don't like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. It is like the auto-supply shop over town where they always say, ' Sorry, we are just out of that part' "

I told him, "You make it too tough. Help doesn't have to be anything that big."

He asked me, "Do you think your mother helps him by buttering his rolls?"

"She might," I told him. "In fact, yes, I think she does."

"Do you think you help him?" he asked me.

"I try to, " I said. "My trouble is I don't know him. In fact, one of my troubles is that I don't even know whether he needs help. I don't know, that's my trouble."

"That should have been my text," my father said. "We are willing to help, Lord, but what if anything is needed?"

"I still know how to fish," he concluded. "Tomorrow we will go fishing with him."

Part of the problem, Norman says, is that he doesn't understand his brother. His father agrees, but points out that they have fishing as a common bond. They have some level of understanding when they all fish together.

It turns out that is the last time they go fishing with their brother. Shortly thereafter, Paul gets into a fight and is killed. The father is heartbroken and struggles to find meaning in Paul's death.

For some time, though, he struggled for more to hold on to. "Are you sure you have told me everything you know about his death?" he asked. I said, "Everything." "It's not much, is it?" "No, I replied, "but you can love completely without complete understanding." "That I have known and preached," my father said.

Sometimes, it's just not possible to understand someone, to reach them. Norman explains that his brother was a great fisherman because he partly understood where the fish would go and how the fish would behave. After landing a fine catch, Paul says, "I'm pretty good with a rod, but I need three more years before I can think like a fish." Paul has a talent for fishing that neither his brother or father can match [1].

For a person to truly understand another -- that feat is as difficult as a fisherman trying to think like a fish.

[1] It's ironic that Norman and his father feel unable to connect with Paul, and yet Paul is an amazing fly fisherman who can "connect" with fish.

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