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The prodigal son parable and Maclean's A River Runs through It.

THERE is no question that the "brother's keeper" theme provides the strongest theological and dramatic momentum in Norman Maclean s beautifully lyrical story of fishing, family and religion. Even first time and casual readers of Maclean's poignant and cathartic tale of guilt and grief recall the opening and closing lines of his narrative: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing" and "I am haunted by waters." (1) Maclean is haunted by waters because in a family that conflated sporting activities with spiritual ones, the family's proscribed remedy for helping someone--"take them fishing"--was tragically in-ept. (2) Some fifty years later, Maclean was still processing a deep-seated and chronic ache. For instance, one of the earliest warnings of Paul-in-trouble comes when Paul tells the story of his moonlit chase of a rabbit that ends with his running off the road and nearly totaling his car. Hearing Paul's tale Norman wonders, though it was not spoken of, whether Paul had had too much to drink: but "since it was no great thing either way, I finally decided to forget it, and as you see, I didn't" (15, emphasis added). (3) As the story unfolds, despite many indirect and a few somewhat direct pleas for help from his younger brother, neither his older brother nor his parents did or could help Paul.

Besides the "brother's keeper" thematic, another biblical analog--the prodigal son parable--is barely concealed beneath the powerfully moving narration of Maclean's novella. Surprisingly, no commentator, so far as I have discovered, has responded to this hermeneutical hint from the celebrated English professor who started his novelist's career at the age of seventy-three upon his retirement from the University of Chicago.

I argue that the "brother's keeper" provides the story's dominant motif, and unmistakable parallels between the biblical parable of a father and his two sons and the bitter-sweet memoir of life in Montana during the 1920s enrich our appreciation of Maclean's artful storytelling. Using the well-known prodigal son tale as a context and a background widens our gaze so that we pay attention to the relationships between the older and younger brothers and how their father deals with each of them. (Note: while the parable makes no mention of the siblings' mother, A River Runs through It carefully describes the loving, though sadly limited, responses of both parents, the Reverend John and Mrs. Clara Maclean. (4)) Jesus's lessons in this parable call attention to a wide range of complex relationships: 1) the dynamics between the father and the older brother, 2) how both of them deal with each other and the younger son, and 3) how all three of them confront the reality that while the older brother is sane, sensible and responsible, the rash, profligate and irresponsible son is nonetheless the favored one.

LUKE is the only New Testament evangelist who recounts Jesus's teaching dealing with a reckless, wasteful and spendthrift son. Chapter 15 of Luke's gospel contains three parables, all addressed to the Pharisees and scribes who have murmured that Jesus mingles with the tax collectors and eats with sinners. The first two parables--dealing with the rejoicing of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine to find the lost sheep and the woman who rejoices with her friends and neighbors when she has found the lost silver coin--clearly establish that the matter of chief concern is rejoicing over the recovery of what was lost. In light of this, the third and longest parable in Luke 15 might better be called "the rejoicing of the prodigal son's father."

Luke's parable begins abruptly with the younger son asking for his share of the inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:15-17 stipulates that even if the first born son is not the favorite, he is still entitled to a double portion of his father's property. Accordingly, the younger son's share is limited to one-third of the estate, while his older brother's legacy is two-thirds of it. "A few days later," Luke explains, "the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant county, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living" (LK 15:13). His money gone and facing a famine, he attached himself to a land owner who sent him into his fields to feed the swine. Luke then adds a surprising detail, "And he would have gladly filled himself on the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything" (LK 15:16). Finally coming to his senses, the prodigal son decided to return to his father to beg forgiveness and ask him to become one of the hired servants. (As we shall see below, in his story Maclean subtly incorporates and embellishes upon the need to seek out, then to accept assistance when it is offered.)

Luke's verse 20 underscores the father as the main player in the story: "And so he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him." Without pause, question or reprimand the father, overwhelmed by an unconditional love for his son, has his servants bring his son "a robe--the best one," a ring and sandals, and he orders a feast, proclaiming "let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found" (LK 15:23-24). Note that Luke does not say that the son was thought to be dead and is now alive or that he was thought to be lost and is now found. A helpful gloss on this verse appears in 1 Timothy 5:6 where St. Paul says of the widow, "she who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives" (emphasis added).

The second half of the prodigal son parable, an unusually long and detailed one, deals with the older son's resentment of his father's forgiveness of his younger brother. Again the father takes the initiative and goes the extra step. When the older son refused to come in and join the party, "his father came out and began to plead with him" (LK 15:28). The parable ends with the father neither apologizing for looking past the younger son's misdeeds nor defending his own generosity. He simply reiterates, "We had to celebrate" (LK 15:32).

ONE wants to ask both fathers, of the prodigal son and of Paul Maclean, "Why didn't you intervene when you knew what was going to happen?" Two of the reasons both loving fathers might offer are that the son is an adult or that one must want to be helped before it is advantageous to intervene. In addition, the Reverend Maclean might speak of Paul's infectious charm that made his faults quickly recede into the background. Finally, both sons are so bathed in grace that they are simply loved--by God and by their fathers (and presumably by their mothers and older brothers; eventually, one supposes even the prodigal son's older brother came around). On this last point, the prodigal son's father finds the matter to be straightforward: "We had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours who was dead has come to life; he was lost, and is found" (LK 15:32). For the Reverend Maclean, the proper response to his errant son is a clear if complex matter, "you can love completely without complete understanding" "That I have known and preached" (103). Reverend Maclean realizes that his son is richly talented, charmingly likable and amply blessed--that is, that he has been divinely gifted and graced. Perhaps it is because his parents and older brother sense that Paul is a special person upon whom God's favor rests that their basic mode of dealing with him is a hands-off policy. Let us now explore in some detail the reticence of the Maclean family to, in the words of the desk sergeant at the police station, "help him straighten out" (24).

Paul's brother and parents, as well as a number of townspeople, know of his troubles and the all but inevitable fate that faces him. His family loves to hear his stories, even when "his stories would appear as something about him what would not meet the approval of his family" (13). For a time Norman believes that Paul does not realize that he needs help so he tries to imagine ways to help Paul more accurately see himself and his situation as Norman thinks out loud, "I tried to find something I already knew about life that might help me reach out and touch my brother and get him to look at me and himself" (27). For instance, in the pre-dawn hours after he took Paul and his Indian girl friend Mabel from jail to Paul's apartment, Norman reflects, "Sunrise is the time to feel that you will be able to find out how to help somebody close to you who you think needs help even if he doesn't think so" (28).

Actually all the Macleans, even Paul himself, realize the tragic endpoint of his downward and deadly spiral. Norman admits, "Maybe one of our ultimate troubles was that I never wanted to hear much about my brother" (23). Of his parents, he recalls that whenever the Reverend Maclean got close to a discussion of Paul's troubles, "he had another thought about what he was thinking, and swerved from what he was going to say" (80) and that his mother chose not to know, so "she was never to ask me a question about the man she loved most and understood least" (102). (5)

Instead of intervening, Paul's family is stymied by his verve and dash. The mother-son relationship provides the strongest account of Paul's special appeal. The emotional climate in the Maclean household was very stoic, easily surpassing the expected and typical Scottish demeanor of restraint and reserve. In his wonderfully informative preface, Richard Friedenberg (author of the screen play for the film version of A River Runs through It) says of the Reverend Maclean, "the love he felt for his family, though undoubtedly strong, was simply not demonstrated. The one thing he most hated was leaving town on the train, because then he would be forced to kiss his wife good-bye in public" (Friedenberg 9). Accordingly, the affection that Paul exhibited toward his mother was exceptional in the Maclean family. The narrator explains that this was clearly evident at those special times when the parents and their adult sons got together. "Whenever we had a family reunion, Mother and Paul were always the central attraction. He would lean back when he hugged her and laugh, but the best she could do was to hug and try to laugh" (78-79). About halfway through the story, the narrator describes a special family dinner wherein Mrs. Maclean made an added effort to favor both her sons:</p> <pre> Early in dinner, Mother was especially nice to me, since she hadn't paid much attention to me so far, but soon she was back with fresh rolls and she buttered Paul's. "Here is your favorite chokecherry jelly," she said passing it to him ... Somewhere along the line she had forgotten that it was I who liked chokecherry jelly, a gentle confusion that none of her men minded. (79) </pre> <p>There is little doubt that Paul's presence is the catalyst that makes the Maclean's family dinners glow with warmth. At the meal described above, after they had sat at the table for a very long time hearing his stories, it became time to do the dishes and go to bed. But then Paul left the house to go out to see some of his old pals. His departure took along with him the wonderful family mood; Norman remembers, "I helped my mother with the dishes. Although only one had left, all the voices had gone" (80).

At the end of the novel, when Norman tells his parents that Paul had been murdered, he continues, "my mother turned and went to her bedroom where ... she had faced most of her great problems alone.... Perhaps she knew enough to know that for her it was enough to have loved him. He was probably the only man in the world who had held her in his arms and leaned back and laughed" (102). In the film version Robert Redford, several times, has Brad Pitt (as Paul) effortlessly and effusively embrace his mother; she clearly relishes the public display of their affection. Moreover, in numerous scenes in the film the charm of Brad Pitt/Paul is unmistakable; indeed more than a few characters, in a variety of situations, fall prey to his charisma.

A River Runs through It, then, presents us with a flawed but gifted and attractive hero who needs help. Does Paul understand his own situation and does he want to be helped? Yes and no, just like the Prodigal Son who, when the great famine hits, takes some initiative by attaching himself to a land owner who has him feed his pigs. But then the Prodigal Son inexplicably and passively waits for someone to feed him, "And he would have gladly filled himself on the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything" (LK 15:16). Likewise, Paul senses that he needs help, and while he refuses direct help--the money Norman offers--he is willing to embrace the weaker and indirect family prescription of going fishing as the way to give and receive help. Beyond that, however, he draws the line. Norman reflects, "when things got tough, my brother looked to himself to get himself out of trouble" (90).

Beyond a poignant tale of a careless but charming brother who needed to be helped, Maclean's novella also offers striking commentary on another important theological matter, the mystery of divine grace. Paul's charm and charisma, Maclean argues, are not mere natural gifts; he has been mysteriously and divinely blessed. Why the troublesome, irresponsible and immature Paul Maclean should be singled out is a mystery; that he is favored, despite his faults, is not. God's chosen ones are not perfect; indeed, they are often deeply flawed. To wit: God's appointing Moses, shy and socially iii at ease because of a speech impediment, as His spokesperson or Jesus's naming Peter, with a history of cowardice and waffling, as the Rock of the new church. Accordingly, like the Prodigal Son before him, despite a dissolute and dangerous life style, Paul is nonetheless graced and unconditionally loved.

One key to understanding Paul is to remind ourselves that this family sees fishing as a spiritual exercise (6) and for the Reverend Maclean fly casting is a disciplined art that requires patience and practice:</p>

<pre> My brother and I would have preferred to start learning how to fish by going out and catching a few, omitting entirely anything difficult or technical in the way of preparation that would take away from the fun. But it wasn't by way of fun that we were introduced to our father's art. (2) </pre> <p>And so the Maclean brothers submitted to the Reverend Maclean's tightly controlled, metronome-regulated Presbyterian style of casting wherein "Power comes not from power everywhere, but from knowing where to put it on. 'Remember,' as my father kept saying, 'it is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock'"(4).

The Reverend Maclean's formula for fly casting, writ large, became his algorithm for a successful life: grace builds upon nature via art (7):</p> <pre> My father was very sure about certain matters

pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things--trout as well as eternal salvation--come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy. (4) </pre> <p>But however certain the Reverend Maclean was about his general teaching about fishing and life, both his sons saw its limitations. "After my brother and I became good fishermen, we realized that our father was not a great fly caster, but he was accurate and stylish" (2). Early on, Paul's exceptional ability as a fly fisherman allowed him to break clear of his father's rote and regimented mode of casting. (8) Instead of using the Reverend's simple four-count rhythm, Paul's unique shadow casting involved a complex, double pattern.</p> <pre> Long ago, he had gone far beyond my father's wrist casting, although his right arm was always so important that it had become larger than his left. His right arm, which our father has kept tied to the side to emphasize, the wrist, shot out of his shirt as if it were engineered, and it, too, was larger than his left arm.... Rhythm was just as important as color and just as complicated. It was one rhythm superimposed upon another, our father's four-count rhythm of the line and wrist being still the base rhythm. But superimposed upon it was the piston two count of his arm and the long overriding four count of the completed figure of eight of his reversed loop.

The canyon was glorified by rhythms and colors. (21-22) </pre> <p>As a matter of fact, the canyon was glorified to the extent that Paul is sanctified by a halo. The narrator explains that as Paul began to let out the line that he wove into a figure eight, when</p> <pre>

... he began to cast and the whole world turned to water.... The mini-molecules of water left in the wake of his line made momentary loops of gossamer, disappearing so rapidly in the rising big-grained vapor that they had to be retrained in memory to be visualized

as loops. The spray emanating from him was finer-grained still and enclosed him in a halo of himself. The halo of himself was

always there and always disappearing, as if he were candlelight flickering about three inches from himself. (20) </pre> <p>The story of Maclean's difficulty in finding a publisher for A River Runs through It and Other Stories, including the comment in one publisher's rejection--"These stories have trees in them" (ix)--is well-known. Ultimately, the press of his own University of Chicago accepted his manuscript, breaking its own tradition: this volume is its first and, so far, only publication of a work of original fiction. Maclean's volume, released without fanfare and with little publicity, quietly became a best-selling, minor classic Several film makers sought the film rights. Robert Redford finally persuaded Maclean that a film could remain faithful to the style and substance of his memoir. Accordingly, the burgeoning readership of Maclean's novel and the box office popularity (and critical acclaim) of the Redford/Freidenberg beautifully filmed adaptation attest to the widespread appeal of A River Runs through It. My contention, though, is that there is much more than a good story, artfully and compellingly told, at work here. Given Maclean's deep immersion in his father's religious angle of vision, it is no surprise that fundamental theological themes resonate in Maclean's finely-crafted sentences. First, theologically speaking, the "brother's keeper" theme provides the major tonality in this work while, secondly, its minor key is the prodigal son story. Maclean's third theological lesson deals with the mystery of divine grace. While it is clear in the biblical version of the prodigal son story that the wayward son is welcomed back by his father, Maclean's version of the parable emphatically acknowledges that because both second sons are richly and divinely blessed, they can never lose their father's favor.

For Norman, a clear signal of his father's deep and abiding sense of God's presence and the goodness of the world He created was the fact that the Reverend Maclean so often called things beautiful, "he was about the only man I ever knew who used the word 'beautiful' as a natural form of speech (95)." The Oxford English Dictionary parses "beautiful" in terms of favor, charm and grace, especially in its third definition, "impressing with charm the intellectual or moral sense, through inherent fitness or grace." Moreover the OED calls attention to the close connection of "beautiful" with "beatitude" as "a declaration or ascription of special blessedness" with particular reference to the Sermon on the Mount. The last conversation that Norman and Reverend Maclean had about Paul's death ends with this exchange about things beautiful:</p> <pre> "I've said I've told you all I know. If you push me far enough, all I really know is that he was a fine fisherman."

"You know more than that," my father said. "He was beautiful."

"Yes," I said, "he was beautiful." He should have been--you taught him." (103) </pre> <p>I would argue that Norman has doubly misunderstood his father. First, his father could not have been commenting on Paul as a fisherman, because it was not Reverend Maclean's tutelage that made him a beautiful fisherman. And secondly, the Reverend Maclean knew that. Therefore when he called Paul beautiful he meant that his second son was a beautiful human being, who, for example, when shadow casting was "enclosed ... in a halo of himself" (20).

My contention, then, is that Maclean's novella clarifies and embellishes the prodigal son parable by a clear declaration that both fathers unconditionally love their sons, because both wayward sons have been graced by God. Still, even with Maclean's added commentary on Luke's story, it must be conceded that why these flawed second sons have been singled out to be blessed by God remains stubbornly puzzling.

Viewers of the film version will remember the scenes of young Norman's mornings of home schooling by his father. The film narrator explains, "He taught nothing but reading and writing, and, being a Scot, believed that the art of writing lay in thrift" (26). We witness Norman writing and re-writing a theme. Three times his father makes corrections and sends him back to his room with the charge, "Again. Half as long" (27). And the topic of young Norman's theme? "Grace." Accordingly, I suggest that among the lasting contributions of Norman Maclean's magical A River Runs through It will be to provide generations of biblically attuned and theologically alert readers an occasion to meditate upon the mystery of grace and an invitation to contemplate the wonder of God's favor.

Works Cited

Browning, Mark. "'Some of the Words are Theirs': The Elusive Logos in A River Runs through It." Christianity and Literature. 50 (2001): 679-688.

Culbertson, Diana. "'Our Father's Art': The Lost Paradise of Norman Maclean." Christianity and Literature. 42 (1992): 85-95.

Friedenberg, Richard. "Screenplay and preface." A River Runs through It: Bringing a Classic to the Screen. Livingston, MT: Clark City Press, 1992.

Hesford, Walter, "Fishing for the Words of Life: Norman Maclean's 'A River Runs through It.'" Rocky Mountain Review. 34 (1980): 34-45.

Kittredge, William and Annick Smith. "The Two Worlds of Norman Maclean: Interviews in Montana and Chicago." TriQuarterly. 60 (1984): 412-432.

Maclean, Norman. A River Runs through It and Other Stories. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.

--. Young Men & Fire. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

McFarland, Ron and Hugh Nichols, eds. Norman Maclean. Lewiston, ID: Confluence Press, 1988.

Simonson, Harold P. "Norman Maclean's Two-Hearted River." Western American Literature. 17 (1982): 149-155.

Stegner, Wallace. "Haunted by Waters." Norman Maclean. Eds. McFarland and Nichols. Lewiston, ID: Confluence Press, 1988. 153-60.

Weinberger, Theodore. "Religion and Fly Fishing: Taking Norman Maclean Seriously." Renascence. 49 (1997): 281-289.

Wood, Ralph C. "A River Runs through It: Words under the Rocks." Christian Century. 110 (January 1993): 44-46.


(1) Or as Culbertson puts it "readers who are 'haunted by waters' will know in this brief account something of Maclean's sorrow and his search ..." (93, emphasis added).

(2) See the essays by Browning, Simonson and Weinberger for helpful discussion of the Maclean family's sense of the interplay between religion and fly fishing, the "brother's keeper" theme and the difficulty of helping someone who doesn't want help.

(3) Directly addressing his readers is a powerfully effective technique that Maclean also uses his Young Men & Fire. He encourages his readers to share his own curiosity and urgency to understand how the Mann Gulch fire burned thirteen young Forest Service Smokejumpers to death on the 54 of August 1949. He explains how his careful reconstruction of the tragic events of that day began with his careful study of one photograph that "was the best of the historical photographs of the scene of suffering that I had found, so it was the photograph Laird and I had to work with as we started our quest for the missing parts, and you too should start with it" (174, emphasis added). The key item in Maclean's detective work deals with where the leader of the firefighting crew, Dodge, set his backfire. When Maclean's narrative chronology works up to the crucial point, he interjects: "It may not seem worth mentioning again now, but the rest of this sentence is placed here with some care--Dodge said that from his fire to where he found Sylvia still alive was about 150 to 200 feet east (upgulch) and about 100 feet below him" (177, emphasis added).

(4) With regard to prodigal sons and their mothers, Maclean comments, "more than most mothers, Scottish mothers have had to accustom themselves to migration and sin, and to them all sons are prodigal and welcome home" (11).

(5) In an especially telling interview, when William Kittredge and Annick Smith asked Maclean about his mother and Paul, Norman responded,</p>

<pre> Yes, she had a special affection for Paul. It seemed that the worse sinners we were, the more she loved us. It wasn't that she tried to protect us from ourselves, because she just acted as though we did no sin. But she had a great affection for Paul.

He was so kidding, and made love to her so openly, gave her big hugs. He'd lean back and hold her and laugh at her. She loved it. No man in her life had ever made love to her like that. (418) </pre> <p>Incidentally, William Kittredge was a consultant to Friedenberg in writing the screenplay of A River Runs through It. Redford, the film's producer and director, credits Kittredge as one of the film's three "co-producers."

6) Note Wood's helpful explication of fishing as a religious ritual:</p>

<pre> Maclean's central conviction [is] that the art of fly-fishing is a secular equivalent of what the Westminster Shorter Catechism regards as our chief reason for being, "to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." For Maclean, both religion and fly-fishing are forms of self-control. They teach us how to direct our attention away from our small selves to a high and worthy object. And they require a careful economy of effort, the grace to achieve maximal result with minimal exertion. (45) </pre> <p>Also on this point compare Stegner's comment, "But fishing with a dry fly, which is the skill that gives both meaning and form to 'A River Runs through It,' is not labor with an art, not an occupation but a passion, not a mere skill but a mystery, a symbolic reflection of life" (157) and Hesford's account of Maclean's (and Thoreau's) attempts "to synthesize the natural and the supernatural" (388).

7) In Young Men & Fire, Maclean expands on the "grace builds upon nature via art" formula, in his discussion of how "such moments of relief near the end of tragedy must be important parts of what from classical times has been called the purgation of tragedy:"
 In my family, some such meaning was attached to
 the phrase, "saved by grace." The remaining pages
 of this tragedy are its purgation and they come
 by grace. In my family, what happens on Sunday is
 foreordained. What comes on weekdays comes from
 something within us and for which we are
 responsible, and if it is from something
 deep within us it is called "grace,"
 and is. (282)

8) On Paul's mastery of the art of casting by simply letting his natural gifts gracefully flourish, note Friedenberg's commentary:
 Fly fishing was as close to a religious act for the
 reverend as anything he did in life. He believed in
 fly fishing as well as religion one could attain
 grace only by constant struggle. Yet here was a boy
 who seemed to become an artist on the river with
 almost no effort. While Norman patiently and
 obediently followed his father's strict instructions,
 Paul soared, creating, inventing, surpassing the
 other two men. While Norman's style evolved directly
 from his father's--delicate, close-in,
 accurate--Paul, the taller of the two, broke
 away and used his tremendous strength to develop
 distance. He was blessed with perfect timing,
 and seldom if ever missed a fish, no matter how
 long the cast. It must have severely puzzled
 the reverend, but also most certainly filled
 him with awe. (11)
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Author:Dooley, Patrick K.
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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