A River Runs Through It

Norman Maclean Character Analysis

The narrator of the novella, Norman lives in Wolf Creek, Montana with his wife, Jessie, and her family. Norman is fiercely loyal to, but also competitive with, his brother Paul, and with Paul remains close to his parents in Missoula. We don’t learn anything about Norman’s profession—instead, he is portrayed as a product of his father’s lessons involving both Scripture and fly-fishing. More competent than Paul at life in general, Norman nevertheless seems to lack his brother’s unique spark and charm. But he is an acute observer both of human character—even if he struggles to understand his brother—and of the natural world that surrounds him. Norman’s guilt for not being able to help Paul colors much of the narration, as this feeling of responsibility mingles with a desire to honor Paul’s memory by writing down his stories.

Norman Maclean Quotes in A River Runs Through It

The A River Runs Through It quotes below are all either spoken by Norman Maclean or refer to Norman Maclean. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the University of Chicago Press edition of A River Runs Through It published in 2001.
Part 1 Quotes

As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. […] As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word “beautiful.”

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Norman’s father
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

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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.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Norman’s father
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

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Part 2 Quotes

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 eight of his reversed loop.
The canyon was glorified by rhythms and colors.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Paul Maclean, Norman’s father
Page Number: 21-22
Explanation and Analysis:

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Yet even in the loneliness of the canyon I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as “our brothers’ keepers,” possessed of one of the oldest and possibly one of the most futile and certainly one of the most haunting of instincts. It will not let us go.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Paul Maclean
Related Symbols: Scripture
Page Number: 28-29
Explanation and Analysis:

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Something within fishermen tries to make fishing into a world perfect and apart—I don’t know what it is or where, because sometimes it is in my arms and sometimes in my throat and sometimes nowhere in particular except somewhere deep. Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker)
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

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The cast is so soft and slow that it can be followed like an ash settling from a fireplace chimney. One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful, even if it is only a floating ash.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

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Poets talk about “spots of time,” but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker)
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

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I asked, “Do you think you should help him?”
“Yes,” he said, “I thought we were going to.”
“How?” I asked.
“By taking him fishing with us.”
“I’ve just told you,” I said, “he doesn’t like to fish.”
“Maybe so,” my brother replied. “But maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.”

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Paul Maclean (speaker), Neal
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

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On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.
Even the anatomy of a river was laid bare. Not far downstream was a dry channel where the river had run once, and part of the way to come to know a thing is through its death. But years ago I had known the river when it flowed through this now dry channel, so I could enliven its stony remains with the waters of memory.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker)
Related Symbols: Rivers
Page Number: 61-62
Explanation and Analysis:

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It was here, while waiting for my brother, that I started this story, although, of course, at the time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books. But I knew a story had begun, perhaps long ago near the sound of water. And I sensed that ahead I would meet something that would never erode so there would be a sharp turn, deep circles, a deposit, and quietness.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Paul Maclean
Related Symbols: Rivers
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

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Part 3 Quotes

Then he told me, “In the part I was reading it says the Word was in the beginning, and that’s right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”
“That’s because you are a preacher first and then a fisherman,” I told him. “If you ask Paul, he will tell you that the words are formed out of water.”
“No,” my father said, “you are not listening carefully. The water runs over the words. Paul will tell you the same thing.”

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker), Norman’s father (speaker), Paul Maclean
Related Symbols: Rivers, Scripture
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

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“After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people that go with it? Only then will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”

Related Characters: Norman’s father (speaker), Norman Maclean, Paul Maclean
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

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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.
I am haunted by waters.

Related Characters: Norman Maclean (speaker)
Related Symbols: Rivers, Scripture
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

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Norman Maclean Character Timeline in A River Runs Through It

The timeline below shows where the character Norman Maclean appears in A River Runs Through It. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
Familial and Brotherly Love Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
The narrator, Norman Maclean, relates that in his Presbyterian family in western Montana, fly-fishing and religion were considered... (full context)
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
On Sundays, the young Norman and Paul have to spend the entire day in Sunday school, at services, and studying... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...was never an incredibly talented fisherman, but he is graceful. As a Scot and Presbyterian, Norman notes, his father believes that man has fallen from an original state of grace into... (full context)
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Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
Norman’s father’s rod—he disdains anyone who calls it a pole—is made of split bamboo wrapped in... (full context)
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Norman’s father is always particular about these things, among others—he believes that eternal salvation is tied... (full context)
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Despite their difference in age, Norman knows even as a young man that Paul will be an expert fly-fisherman. Paul always... (full context)
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The brothers already have different personalities before Norman starts working for the U.S. Forest Service at the age of fifteen, and begins to... (full context)
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The Maclean family is very close-knit. Norman and Paul are taught that outside the sacred walls of church and family, the world... (full context)
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Norman and Paul also have in common a certain toughness—Norman’s from working at the Forest Service,... (full context)
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Norman and Paul share a street fighting theory: if it seems like a fight is brewing,... (full context)
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The only time Norman and Paul ever fight, they don’t see their mother, a petite woman, come between them... (full context)
Part 2
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Norman transitions in his memories to the summer of 1937, when his father had retired and... (full context)
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One day in this summer of 1937, Norman goes to see Paul, following his mother-in-law Florence’s request that the two take her son... (full context)
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Norman finds Paul outside a Montana club at 10:30 in the morning, looking like he’s about... (full context)
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...they won’t feel badly about anyone they criticize in the small-town paper. When Paul asks Norman to get a drink with him, Norman apologetically says that it’s too early in the... (full context)
Skill and Art Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...eyes and sandy hair. Florence had said that Paul was the best fisherman anywhere, though Norman says the extent to which Florence knew about fishing was that she could exclaim at... (full context)
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Paul agrees to fish with Neal, since Florence wants him to. Then Norman buys them both a drink. Norman says that Neal will arrive the day after tomorrow,... (full context)
Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
Paul proposes that beforehand, he and Norman take the day off to fish the “big river,” which they both know refers to... (full context)
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The next morning Paul picks up Norman at Wolf Creek. Once they pass the Continental Divide, Paul starts telling one of his... (full context)
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Paul doesn’t mention that he always starts drinking when he’s done fishing (though never during). Norman is left wondering whether he’s been told a funny story or a sobering tale about... (full context)
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Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
...intimidating small fishermen and small fish. The brothers begin to fish on the same side. Norman doesn’t love this area, since cliffs and trees block his possible span and force a... (full context)
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Paul watches Norman and is careful not to seem superior, but suggests that the fish are out a... (full context)
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Norman sees a large black shape rising and sinking in the foamy mid-current, which usually is... (full context)
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Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
For Norman, during fly-fishing there are no thoughts that don’t have to do with the task at... (full context)
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Norman moves to wondering what the fish is thinking. He can’t be convinced that a fish... (full context)
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Norman casts his rod and immediately catches the fish and lands it on the sandbar. The... (full context)
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Norman watches Paul jump into the river and swim out to a cliff, where he climbs... (full context)
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Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
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...muscles specifically for fly-fishing: his right wrist and arm are far bigger than his left. Norman watches the multiple rhythms: their father’s four-count, Paul’s piston two-count, and the arcing four-count of... (full context)
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It’s late when Paul and Norman head back towards Helena, so Paul suggests that Norman stay with him for the night.... (full context)
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...Hot Springs, where things can get more serious than mere fist fighting. Though somewhat confused, Norman gathers that Paul had gone with the half-Indian girl he’s been seeing to Weiss’s restaurant,... (full context)
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Norman confesses that he’s not sure what to do, and the sergeant tells him that he... (full context)
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Norman’s mind flashes back to the woman wearing overalls who had admired Paul’s shadow-casting. Then he... (full context)
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Paul’s girl enjoys getting into trouble, walking arm in arm with Paul and Norman on Last Chance Gulch on a Saturday night so that people would be forced off... (full context)
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Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
...her legs buckle and her stockings slip down. She and Paul both smell like alcohol. Norman carries Paul’s girl out the door as Paul follows. The sergeant suggests, as they leave,... (full context)
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...on reservations have to live on the outskirts of town, by the slaughterhouse or dump, Norman doesn’t take Paul’s girl home but rather puts her to sleep in the guest bed... (full context)
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It’s dawn when Norman drives the 40 miles from Helena to Wolf Creek. He tries to figure out what... (full context)
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Norman notes that at sunrise, everything is “luminous but not clear”—it is the time when it... (full context)
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Still, Norman is aware that there exist others with brothers they want to help even if they... (full context)
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Norman arrives home and goes to sleep. He’s woken up by his wife Jessie, who reminds... (full context)
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...a turtleneck sweater—the only passenger to ever arrive at Wolf Creek, Montana looking like that, Norman thinks. He recognizes his family and says, “Oh,” ignoring Norman. Neal turns his head and... (full context)
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...night Neal tries to sneak out of the house, but Florence and Jessie see him. Norman, to avoid being asked to do so, volunteers to accompany Neal to Black Jack’s Bar.... (full context)
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Neal and Norman sit next to Long Bow, and after a few drinks Neal begins out-lying Long Bow... (full context)
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...it reaches the riverside, Paul jumps out; he’s ready with his leader and flies before Norman has even moved. Jessie warns Norman not to abandon Neal. Paul calls over his shoulder... (full context)
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Norman notes that Paul might have caught so many fish partly because he spends more time... (full context)
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Ken says he’ll fish the beaver dams upstream. Jessie pinches Norman on the arm and repeats to him that she shouldn’t leave her brother. Norman and... (full context)
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Norman walks slowly down the trail, trying, as he says, to leave the world behind. He... (full context)
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Norman wonders if he should speak to Paul about the other night, or at least offer... (full context)
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Norman knows he won’t catch fish if he keeps fooling around, so he leaves Neal behind... (full context)
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After Norman fixes his timing, he soon grows tired of the small, easy-to-catch fish. Norman wonders what... (full context)
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Norman changes his leader and fly, and waxes his line so that it’s sure to float.... (full context)
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For Norman right now, the Elkhorn River, mythical Brown Trout, and the weather are all that exist... (full context)
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Norman wanders upstream until he reaches a hole where not a single fish is jumping: he... (full context)
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One summer, Paul had been watching Norman fish in open water and, frustrated, said that you can’t catch trout in a bathtub—you... (full context)
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Eternal Nature vs. Human Frailty Theme Icon
Grace, Disgrace, and Divine Will Theme Icon
Norman wants to know why fish are jumping everywhere but in this hole. Fly-fishing means looking... (full context)
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The leader settles on a branch. Norman isn’t sure if he drops the fly into the water, or if the fish leaps... (full context)
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Norman notes that while poets talk about “spots of time,” fishermen are the ones who really... (full context)
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...bushes, since Browns usually feed along the river’s edge where grasshoppers and mice fall in. Norman is dismayed: he thought he had fished the hole just how Paul had taught him.... (full context)
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Suddenly, without knowing why, Norman asks if he can help Paul with money or anything, because of the other night.... (full context)
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Then Paul asks where Neal is. Norman is caught off guard, and has to think about it. Paul says Norman will be... (full context)
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Paul tells Norman they should find Neal, and says he shouldn’t have left him behind. Norman should try... (full context)
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Norman and Paul start upstream as the black cloud descends over the canyon. Present-day Norman, now... (full context)
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Paul and Norman trek back to the truck, soaking wet. Norman pokes his head through the canvas into... (full context)
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Norman feels better having Paul beside him, and hopes that one day he can help Paul... (full context)
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...stuck in the muddy ruts of the road. Ken drives the truck and Paul and Norman push. Norman suggests to Ken that Neal get out and help, but Ken says he... (full context)
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Norman falls asleep. When he wakes up he realizes that he’ll need to get out of... (full context)
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Two days later, as Norman and Paul are driving west, Paul begins to tell Norman about a new girl he’s... (full context)
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Norman thinks about how hot it is, and how the fish will probably be all lying... (full context)
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Old Rawhide walks right up to Norman and says she’s brought “Buster” to go fishing with them—she calls all men “Buster” except... (full context)
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They all pile into Paul’s car, and Norman notices they don’t have a fishing rod. He doesn’t dare tell Paul to stop for... (full context)
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Norman suggests to Paul that they turn away from the canyon, where the water is too... (full context)
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Norman peers into the back of the car, where Neal and Old Rawhide look like they’re... (full context)
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Norman notes that in Montana beer doesn’t count as drinking—Paul counts out eight bottles, and tells... (full context)
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As Paul and Norman wander downstream, Paul remarks that Neal will one day realize he doesn’t like Montana and... (full context)
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...brothers begin fishing, but it’s too hot for the fishing to be any good. For Norman, it seems that all of life has migrated from water to land, except that he... (full context)
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Norman recalls fishing’s “curiosity theory,” which says that fish will sometimes strike at things just to... (full context)
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Norman wants to quit but doesn’t want to tell Paul he didn’t catch anything, so he... (full context)
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Norman immediately catches three fish, and spends a little more time to catch a fourth so... (full context)
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Downstream there is a dry channel where the river had once run. Norman notes that one can come to know something in part through its death, especially since... (full context)
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Norman notes that fishermen often think of the river as having been made with fishermen in... (full context)
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Norman shares the fisherman’s phrase to describe the study of a river’s patterns: “reading the water.”... (full context)
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Suddenly Norman hears Paul’s voice, asking if he did well. Paul has caught about ten or twelve,... (full context)
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As they trudge up the trail, Norman apologizes, saying he wishes he could have stayed away from Neal, but Paul says he... (full context)
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...bodies are about to blister and run a fever. Looking back as a narrator, though, Norman remarks that the days are gone when you could sleep naked next to a girl... (full context)
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Norman knows that when the two wake up they will be blind and furious, so he... (full context)
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Paul separates Neal’s clothes from Old Rawhide’s. Norman says Neal won’t be able to stand the touch of his clothes, so Paul says... (full context)
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They drive towards the log dance hall, a regular locale for fighting. Norman stops the car in front, and Old Rawhide grabs the rest of her clothes and... (full context)
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...they go inside, Florence asks what they’ve done with her boy. Jessie appears and tells Norman he’s a bastard. Norman tells her to get out of the way and let them... (full context)
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Norman knows he can’t lie: part of Scottish faith means a complete foreknowledge of sin. He... (full context)
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Before Norman closes the door, Jessie tells him to wait. She says he doesn’t like Neal, does... (full context)
Part 3
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Norman goes to Black Jack’s to have a few drinks with Paul, who insists on paying.... (full context)
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...She butters all his rolls with his favorite chokecherry jelly—she’s forgotten that this was actually Norman’s favorite, but they never have the heart to correct her. Their father is in retirement... (full context)
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As Norman helps their mother with the dishes, Paul says he’s going to run to town to... (full context)
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Norman isn’t sure how much his father knows about Paul, but assumes some things have reached... (full context)
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As Norman’s father goes to the door, he turns and says that he is too old to... (full context)
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Norman waits a long time before falling asleep. Before getting up, he hears Paul open and... (full context)
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...sight of the river down a steep bank, next to red and green Precambrian rocks. Norman and his father recall how they picked such rocks to build their fireplace. His father... (full context)
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Father says he’ll head down to the open water, while Norman and Paul stay by these big rocks. Paul suggests that they fish together. This is... (full context)
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As Norman wades into the water, big flies slam into his face. They are stupid and swollen,... (full context)
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Norman takes the fly out and feels content: he feels loved by the women in his... (full context)
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Norman has learned his lesson from this one cast, and for the rest of the day... (full context)
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After Norman catches his sixth Rainbow, he hears a massive splash to his left. He can’t think... (full context)
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...father. Paul yells across the river to ask what the fish are biting on, and Norman says yellow stone flies—he asks if Paul wants one, but he yells back no. Norman,... (full context)
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Now Norman is no longer getting strikes, and his Bunyan Bug fly no longer seems so appealing.... (full context)
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Norman tells Paul to say what he means. Paul says that he first noticed on this... (full context)
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Norman catches two more, even though he’s on Paul’s side of the river: with ten, he... (full context)
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Norman says he’s going to sit by his father and wait for Paul. He’s certain that... (full context)
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Norman’s father says that in the part of the Bible he was reading it says the... (full context)
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...and holds up two fingers, meaning he has two fish left to reach his limit. Norman and his father get up, and Father throws a rock over to Paul’s side of... (full context)
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Norman’s father, looking out at Paul, says there must be a big one where he’s casting,... (full context)
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To Norman, the performance looks like children playing. Norman and his father reassure each other that Paul... (full context)
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That would be the last fish Norman and his father ever saw Paul catch. When they would talk about it later, they... (full context)
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...photos turn out overexposed and amateurish. There is one picture, however, that remains fixed in Norman’s mind: Paul is smiling, flies whizzing around his hatband, water streaming down his face. Norman... (full context)
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Norman’s father, who is shy in praise, tells Paul that he is a fine fisherman. Paul... (full context)
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As they pack up, Paul repeats that he just needs three more years. Later Norman realizes that the river must have told both him and Paul that he would not... (full context)
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The next May, the police sergeant awakens Norman before dawn. Silently, they drive together down the Continental Divide and the Blackfoot to tell... (full context)
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After Norman tells his father the news, his father asks for more information. Norman says that nearly... (full context)
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Once Norman’s father asks if Norman thinks he (the father) could have helped Paul. Norman responds, “Do... (full context)
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Once, though, Norman’s father asks some questions that make Norman wonder if he eve really understood his father,... (full context)
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Now, the older Norman, who has been narrating, reflects that nearly all those he loved and did not understand... (full context)
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Norman ends with a meditation on the ancient history of the river, a glacial flood among... (full context)