Norman transitions in his memories to the summer of 1937, when his father had retired and was living with their mother in Missoula, while Paul was a reporter in the capital of Helena, and Norman was living with his wife’s family in Wolf Creek, 40 miles away.
Both Norman and Paul have stayed relatively close to home, never straying from their Montanan upbringing, though Norman has stepped further outside the family by marrying.
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 Neal fishing when he comes to town. Norman isn’t sure what Paul will think, but he knows that Paul loves Norman’s wife and mother-in-law—though Paul still can’t see why Norman wanted to get married in the first place.
Paul has chosen a lifestyle that allows him the ultimate freedom, while Norman now feels obligated to follow his mother-in-law’s wishes. Nevertheless, Paul has apparently been willing to broaden his familial love to Norman’s new family.
Norman finds Paul outside a Montana club at 10:30 in the morning, looking like he’s about to get a drink. Norman shares the news: his brother-in-law Neal is coming from the West Coast and wants to fish with them. Paul says a West Coaster fishes with worms and he can’t condone that. He says that even though the brother-in-law may be from Montana originally, everyone from the West Coast moved there to become accountants, businessmen, or gamblers—since they couldn’t make it as fly-fishermen.
This is our first inkling that Paul’s issues may include alcoholism—as well as betting, gambling, and being eager for a fight, as we’ve already seen. Though Paul has accepted Norman’s new family, he still is suspicious and scornful of those outside the Montana fold—“outsiders,” for him, is a term that can be defined by an ignorance of fly-fishing.
Paul and his editor begin drinking early each morning so that 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 morning for him to drink. He decides to quickly say something else, so he tells Paul that Florence had wanted Paul to fish with Neal.
Norman is acutely self-conscious about Paul’s feelings—knowing Paul’s pride and stubbornness, Norman doesn’t want Paul to feel as if he’s being judged or condemned. Instead, Norman turns to fly-fishing, where Paul is the undeniable master, in order to ask him a favor.
Paul loves Florence, partly because she, also a Scot, looks like his father, with blue 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 the amount caught in the fisherman’s basket every time. Florence most likely was hoping that Paul and Norman, the “preacher’s kids,” would improve Neal’s morals, though most people in town knew not to hold Paul up on a pedestal.
Paul and Norman are both fiercely loyal to their kind and suspicious of outsiders, who may not share the same ethical code as the two of them and their father. Of course, Paul’s morals are concerned more with how to behave while fishing and maintain one’s toughness rather than with a more compassionate ethical code. For the townspeople, Paul is verging on disgrace.
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, and the following day they’ll fish on the Elkhorn, a small stream. Usually the two are scornful of those who fish in small streams, but the Elkhorn has special Brown Trout and other unique features.
Norman cedes for a moment to Paul’s way of doing things, out of sensitivity as well as gratefulness. We also learn here that fly-fishing has its own geographical hierarchy, depending on difficulty, skill, and the diversity of a river’s offerings.
Paul proposes that beforehand, he and Norman take the day off to fish the “big river,” which they both know refers to the powerful Big Blackfoot with its many powerful fish. Its headwaters are on the Continental Divide, near a mine where the lowest temperature in the continental United States was officially recorded at 69.7 degrees below zero. Much of the Blackfoot was created instantly, when an enormous glacial lake (covering today’s Montana and Idaho) broke its ice dam—the biggest flood in history that has geological proof behind it. The Blackfoot is a difficult place for trout to live, since the water is so swift and powerful, but it’s the river the brothers know best, having fished it since the beginning of the 20th century.
Unlike the Elkhorn, the Blackfoot is treated with due respect by the brothers. In the historical and nature-related details that Norman shares, there is a consistent tone of awe. This area exudes a kind of sublime beauty and strength that exceeds human grasp, whether in the unimaginably cold temperatures of the Continental Divide mine, or the flood of biblical proportions that took place on such a massive scale—having fished the river since the dawn of the century can’t compare to such ancient vastness.
The next morning Paul picks up Norman at Wolf Creek. Once they pass the Continental Divide, Paul starts telling one of his stories about his antics, though he talks about them in a removed way, as if reporting on them. In this story, he fished alone until evening; when he was returning home to Helena, feeling lonely, a jackrabbit started following his tail lights on the road. The way Paul tells it, the story is poetic and subtle—it ends with Paul looking back at the rabbit, whose eyes are shining, and then failing to see a turn in the road and crashing.
While Norman and Paul continue to share the bond of family and fly-fishing, they now live in separate places, and drives like these are some of the few times that they can speak one-on-one. Paul’s choice of a conversation reflects their different lifestyles as well as Norman’s difficulty in understanding his brother’s actions. It also highlights Paul’s natural skill as a writer and storyteller—another kind of artistry, but one that he clearly prioritizes below fly-fishing.
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 a serious car crash that ended up costing his brother hundreds of dollars.
Norman knows about his brother’s drinking, but is too afraid of judging or alienating him to ask if Paul needs help, or even to ask Paul to elaborate.
Above the old Clearwater bridge by a canyon the Blackfoot River is louder than anywhere, roaring and 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 “roll cast,” in which the fisherman attempts to get distance without extending line behind him. Norman starts by winding his rod slowly so that a long part of the line stays in the water. He then has to use all his power to shoot this line out over the water. It looks like a rattlesnake striking when done well.
The Blackfoot’s size and strength makes it suitable only for those fly-fishermen who won’t be intimidated by the river, but will still treat it with the proper attention and respect. Norman is less comfortable than Paul is in this kind of terrain, which forces him to practice a certain skill particular to fly-fishing in problematic areas blocked by elements of nature: the roll cast.
Paul watches Norman and is careful not to seem superior, but suggests that the fish are out a bit farther, on a diagonal. They both act as if Paul hadn’t said anything, but Norman obeys the directions, and finds that more fish are biting.
Just as Norman is wary of condemning his brother for drinking, so Paul is sensitive to Norman’s feeling of inferiority in fishing. Neither has been able to move past a wounded pride about personal areas of weakness.
Norman sees a large black shape rising and sinking in the foamy mid-current, which usually is too strong for most fish. He thinks to himself that this fish will now be further downstream than where he saw it, and he wonders where he can cast from. He crawls up onto a rock slick with water, and asks himself where he’ll land such a big fish if he hooks it—a question he says all fishermen should ask themselves.
The “large black shape” takes on almost mythical proportions, as a creature of brute strength that can navigate the complex, powerful currents of the Blackfoot. Norman asks himself questions that seem as much about philosophy as about fishing strategy.
For Norman, during fly-fishing there are no thoughts that don’t have to do with the task at hand. Hope and Fear characterize these thoughts, and are in constant tension. One Fear, he says, is that there are rocks all downstream, so Norman can’t land the fish right away, before getting to a sandbar. Another Fear counters that the fish will escape if he tries to fight it downriver, so he should try to land it closer. The two Fears argue back and forth.
While Norman claims that his thoughts while fly-fishing have nothing to do with anything else, it’s clear in these passages that fly-fishing is deeply relevant to broader questions, and issues as large as hope and fear. For this family, such emotions are embodied by and developed through the art of fly-fishing.
Norman moves to wondering what the fish is thinking. He can’t be convinced that a fish feels nothing but hunger and fear. He imagines that the fish has caught sight of the two brothers and is saying to himself that it’s lucky it’s Norman and not the other brother who’s about to fish here.
Norman’s personification of the fish is both a humorous interlude and an acknowledgement that there is much about nature that he cannot know, and that eludes human comprehension in general.
Norman casts his rod and immediately catches the fish and lands it on the sandbar. The fish jerks back and forth until Norman slices its head off with his knife. The fish is too large for the basket and, with its crustacean-like black spots, looks oceanic. When Paul sees it, he tips his hat to Norman in respect.
Norman’s thoughts about the fish are seen to be a necessary prelude to his conquest, though the sight of the fish in the basket reminds Norman of the eternal world of nature, where he and Paul are merely fleeting outsiders.
Norman watches Paul jump into the river and swim out to a cliff, where he climbs up and steadies himself to cast. Water is sliding off him and seems to make a kind of halo, flickering with the vapor rising from the river. Paul casts hard upstream and then pivots gracefully downstream, circling several times in an elegant motion that he calls “shadow casting.” He thinks fish see the shadows of the fly over the water and immediately hit it when the fly touches. Norman notes that shadow casting never worked for him—he’s not sure if he believes in it, but perhaps he just didn’t have the arm and wrist strength of his brother.
Paul takes on an angelic nature here, reflecting his and father’s understanding of fly-fishing as an art closely connected to the divine. Paul’s “graceful” actions similarly link his skill to a higher goodness, and in turn, his skill in fly-fishing is described not as an element of a competitive sport or hobby but rather as a true art, with techniques that have something of the genius and the unknowable.
Paul is relatively short, but has developed 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 his loop. A couple emerges from the woods, and they both exclaim at Paul’s skill. When Norman starts to move to the next hole, the woman, who’s wearing bib overalls, asks if he’s not going to stay to see the big fish. Norman answers that he’ll see them later—Paul is his brother.
Norman traces the musical rhythms of Paul’s movements, taught by their father but mastered and even further developed by Paul. Even strangers, as Norman notes, can easily become enraptured by Paul’s art, seeing something beautiful in his fly-fishing, just as the boys’ father had taught them to see beauty in the sport.
It’s late when Paul and Norman head back towards Helena, so Paul suggests that Norman stay with him for the night. Paul says that he’ll have to leave Norman for a few hours that night, though. Around two in the morning, Norman gets a call from a desk sergeant who tells him to come into the county jail—Paul has been arrested. Norman doesn’t have to pay bail, since Paul covers the police beat and has friends around, but the sergeant says that Paul will have to come back. He beat someone up and broke some dishes and a table at a bar, and he’s going to be sued. The sergeant says that Paul has been drinking too much lately, and he’s been brought in often. Norman doesn’t want to hear much more: perhaps one problem, he now thinks, is that he never was too interested in hearing such details about Paul.
Once back in Helena, the brothers’ positions are switched once again, and Norman becomes the more mature, knowledgeable one who must get his brother out of trouble. We’ve already seen elements of Paul’s stubborn personality as a child, and as an adult, this obstinacy—as well as his sense of honor versus disgrace—has led to a more dangerous belligerence. Norman plays the role of dutiful brother who acts out of a sense of love and helpfulness, but he admits that he prefers not to deal with Paul’s issues head-on, as that would mean acknowledging their gravity.
The sergeant says that Paul is behind in the big poker game at 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, where they have booths with curtains that can be drawn for couples. A man had stuck his head into the curtain and yelled, “Wahoo,” a racial slur, and Paul knocked him over the table. The man had said it was just a joke. The sergeant agrees with Norman that it’s not funny, but it’ll still cost Paul a good deal.
Montana may be a place that Norman and Paul fiercely love, but at this time it is also home to rabid racism and white fear of “mixing” between whites and Native Americans—those who, of course, occupied Montana far earlier than any European pioneers. Still, Paul’s refusal to be disgraced, or to let another be disgraced, leads him to violence, and he doesn’t seem to be able to learn from it.
Norman confesses that he’s not sure what to do, and the sergeant tells him that he also has a troublemaking younger brother. Norman asks what he does to help him, and the sergeant says he takes him fishing. Norman asks about what happens when that doesn’t work. The sergeant is silent, and then tells Norman to go see his brother.
Maclean portrays fly-fishing as a generally Montanan response to troubles of the mind or body, and a way for people to offer help to those who don’t seem to want it. Norman is starting to doubt this solution, though he doesn’t press the sergeant for another.
Norman’s mind flashes back to the woman wearing overalls who had admired Paul’s shadow-casting. Then he enters the room, where Paul is standing by the barred window. The Half-Indian girl is sitting at his feet. She is one of Norman’s favorite women because of her glistening black hair. One of her great-grandmothers had been a Cheyenne tribe member back when the Cheyenne defeated General Custer with the Sioux, and cut off the testicles of the Seventh Cavalry after the defeat.
Norman’s flashback further underscores the contrast between Paul as a radiant, angelic master of the river, and his position now, in a dingy jail cell where he has to be fished out himself. Paul’s “girl” seems to possess some of the same strident, devil-may-care characteristics Paul does, though it’s also possible that Norman, entranced, exoticizes details of her past.
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 the sidewalk into the street. She loves having a man get into a fight over her, but Norman says that she makes up for it by being such a beautiful dancer. Norman calls her Mo-nah-se-tah, which is the name of the Cheyenne chief’s beautiful daughter.
Mo-nah-se-tah, rather than try to mitigate the discrimination she faces as a Native American, prefers to provoke others into performing their prejudice outright. Norman seems to admire the woman’s spirit, though he continues to exoticize her.
Now Mo-nah-se-tah doesn’t look as beguiling as usual—she struggles to get up, but 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, that they all go fishing.
Again, the dignity and nobility of Paul as a fly-fisherman—and of Mo-nah-se-tah in her usual beguiling appearance—are exchanged for a more dismal state of affairs. The sergeant’s suggestion seems heartfelt, if comical, but hardly a long-term solution.
Since the Indians not 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 in Paul’s apartment. She says to him that Paul should have killed the man who insulted her. Norman says maybe he did.
The fact that Native Americans are relegated to the outskirts of town underlines the prejudice and disgrace that Paul’s girl faces daily. Still, Norman isn’t sure how to deal with Paul’s actual response in lashing out against it.
It’s dawn when Norman drives the 40 miles from Helena to Wolf Creek. He tries to figure out what might help him reach out to Paul. He thinks of other troublemakers in his father’s family, from Scotland to Fairbanks, Alaska, whom he’s heard about from his aunts, who still adore their big, funny brothers. Every Christmas until they die, these uncles scrawl notes to their sisters saying they’ll return to the States soon.
Norman is closely attached to his family history, which for him represents a certain toughness and strength of spirit that he, Paul, and their father continue to exhibit. Here, Norman wonders if Paul’s actions can simply be explained as the male side of the family’s usual “troublemaking.”
Norman notes that at sunrise, everything is “luminous but not clear”—it is the time when it seems it may be possible to help someone, even if it seems unlikely. As Norman drives into a canyon, he reminds himself that Paul isn’t like other people in his family: he is an artist, and would never run away to Alaska.
By “luminous but not clear,” Norman suggests that nature’s cycles can promote a certain wonder and way of thinking even if they cannot provide answers to human questions.
Still, Norman is aware that there exist others with brothers they want to help even if they don’t understand them—all of whom possess the futile but tenacious instinct of being “our brothers’ keepers.”
This phrase stems from the Bible’s Old Testament, and the story of Cain and Abel—where one brother denied responsibility for the other’s death.
Norman arrives home and goes to sleep. He’s woken up by his wife Jessie, who reminds him that they have to meet Neal at the train station. Norman is relieved to remember that his wife’s family has someone to worry about themselves—it even seems funny to him. He jokes to Jessie that it will be a “pleasure” to meet Neal. She says she knows Norman doesn’t like Neal. Norman agrees, and she says he’s funny.
In the light of Norman’s own family issues, those of his wife Jessie seem relatively unimportant and benign (from his perspective). Perhaps it is this contrast that puts Norman into such a good mood, teasing and joking with Jessie before the arrival of another prodigal son (and brother).
Neal descends from the train wearing white flannels and a red, white, and blue V-neck sweater over 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 waits to be kissed. His suitcase is his mother’s, embroidered with her maiden initials. When Florence sees it, she cries.
From the moment we see Neal, we’re witnesses to Norman’s disdain of his brother-in-law. Neal lacks the rugged, self-assured attitude of a true Montanan, and instead sticks out as an imposer, one that, for Norman, has certain effeminate qualities—making him scorn Neal even more.
That 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. The bar is a freight car with its wheels removed, and a mountain goat painted on its side. The bar itself is an unevenly split log, while the stools are grocery crates. Inside is a regular named Long Bow—in this area, “to pull the long bow” means to tell tall tales about one’s own hunting and shooting. However, Norman once saw him shoot five aspirin tablets that his friend had thrown into the air.
Neal seems not much more pleased than Norman to be in town, and in the thrall of his female relatives. Black Jack’s Bar is pure local Montana culture, and Norman is totally at home here. Part of living in a small town involves participating in local legends, and Long Bow’s skill at shooting is another kind of “artistry” that, like Paul’s fly casting, reflects the locals’ rugged way of life.
On the other end of the bar is a woman known as Old Rawhide, the town prostitute. She had been elected town beauty queen of Wolf Creek a decade earlier after riding a horse bareback around the town’s 111 inhabitants. Wolf Creek is tiny, but has two regional celebrities, a steer wrestler and a roper, who each win hundreds of dollars at county fairs over the summer (though this doesn’t count their hospital expenses). Old Rawhide splits her winters living with one or the other, never lasting long at either. In the summers she lives at Black Jack’s and picks up stray fishermen.
Again, Norman adds some local color to his descriptions, as well as another bar regular. Both entertainment and livelihoods in Wolf Creek seem to revolve around a certain relationship to the natural and animal world—especially in the ability to master it, as wrestlers and ropers attempt to. Old Rawhide will play a larger role in the story later on, but here we have an initial sense of her character.
Neal and Norman sit next to Long Bow, and after a few drinks Neal begins out-lying Long Bow with his own outrageous tall tales. Norman notices that Neal’s strategy with women is to first ignore Old Rawhide as an initial ploy, and Norman realizes it’s a good one. Neal is talking about tracking an otter up to freezing-cold Rogers Pass, making it up as he goes along. Finally Old Rawhide, who’s sick of being ignored, asks “Buster,” as she calls Neal, why otters are at the top of the Continental Divide, when they only occupy creeks and mud slides. Neal stops and suggests they have another drink—one for Old Rawhide, too. Shortly after, Norman rises from his crate, and Old Rawhide slides closer to Neal. Norman reminds him that they’re going fishing the next morning, but Neal doesn’t seem to be listening.
Though Neal may have been shy and polite around his female relatives, here he takes on a different persona, embracing the opportunity to manufacture exciting, exotic tales about, again, mastering the wilderness. Old Rawhide, whom Neal is attempting to seduce, sees right through his tales, as any local who understands wildlife naturally would, but this doesn’t seem to dissuade Neal from his tricks—and it doesn’t seem to bother Old Rawhide either. Norman’s reminder underlines where his own priorities lie, and foreshadow an uncomfortable next morning.
The next day Paul is there early: he and Norman never go against the rule by which they were raised: to never be late for church, work, or fishing. Florence nervously tells Paul that Neal was home late and isn’t up yet. Paul says to get him—he didn’t even go to bed himself. Paul and Florence stare at each other: as Norman puts it, no Scottish mother likes to have a lazy son in bed, and no Scot fisherman likes to wait around for a male relative with a hangover. Florence gently wakes up Neal.
Paul may not have given up his late nights and drinking, but to him, fly-fishing continues to be sacred. Paul too can now find a reason to be scornful of Neal, who is already interrupting their fishing plans. Norman will often relate the character of Florence and the other women as peculiar to Scots, reflecting the importance he places on family history.
The group loads the truck of Ken, Jessie’s other brother, and the six of them pile in. They follow the pothole-ridden road (making Neal even more uncomfortable) until the moment when the Elkhorn River empties into the Missouri. But Ken, who lives in Wolf Creek, is an expert with his hands and deftly manages the terrain. His wife Dorothy is a registered nurse, and she, Florence, and Jessie (essentially Wolf Creek’s medical center) bend over Neal, who is lying on a mattress in the back of the truck.
Norman doesn’t fail to relate how Neal is entirely unprepared to go fishing—another example, for Norman, of Neal’s effeminate, “weak” nature. We’ve already seen how much Paul and Norman value toughness—part of the reason they’re both reluctant to accept help—so Neal’s over-eagerness to have others attend to him is especially unappealing to them.
Since Ken knows everyone in town, they’re able to enter the private land of a man named Jim McGregor and fish on his part of the river. The ranch road grows more and more rugged until it only consists of two ruts. As soon as 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 that he’ll start upstream, and they’ll meet in the middle.
Norman’s brief comment about Jim McGregor reveals the ironic fact that, despite nature’s power and ultimate ambivalence about human affairs, people still can “own” things like rivers. From the start Norman is yoked to Neal by his wife’s orders, and already he seems to be behind Paul, who waits for no one. It’s assumed that none of the women will fish—they wait in the truck for the men.
Norman notes that Paul might have caught so many fish partly because he spends more time in the water—he’s quicker than anyone to reach the river, change flies, tie knots, etc. Norman also imagines that Paul doesn’t want to give Norman a chance to talk to him about the other night.
Paul’s hastiness to get out onto the river is part of his general efficiency and adoration of fly-fishing, but it seems to Norman that his quickness is also due to Paul’s reluctance to linger for any lectures or attempts to “help” him.
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 Neal walk down a trail. Once they’re out of sight, Neal says he’s not feeling well, and will stop there to fish the meadow. Though he’ll only be a few hundred yards away from Norman, Norman knows it’s a bad idea, since Neal can’t be seen from the bend in the river—but he’s impatient to fish, so he agrees.
Jessie’s insistence seems to suggest that it will be more difficult than it appears for Norman to keep his eye on Neal. Neal, of course, knows how to be manipulative, and Norman—probably unwilling to let Paul get too far ahead of him—acts a bit irrationally and fails to “see after” Neal as Jessie had asked him to.
Norman walks slowly down the trail, trying, as he says, to leave the world behind. He notes that fishermen have the tendency to want the world to be perfect: perhaps they’d fish better if they didn’t spend so much time waiting for perfection.
Again, fly-fishing gives Norman the opportunity for more profound contemplation. Here, fishing is tied to the human weakness of desiring perfection without also working towards it.
Norman wonders if he should speak to Paul about the other night, or at least offer to help him with money. He follows these questions until his conscience ebbs away, though without coming up with any answers. At one point he turns back to check on Neal, who has left the meadow and is nodding off on a rock, his neck nearly sunburnt. Norman says this still water isn’t good for fishing. Neal points to all the fish he sees, and Norman, without looking, says they’re “squaw fish” and “suckers.” Norman is exasperated that Neal can be a native of Montana without knowing what a sucker is. Norman asks Neal again if he wants to fish with him and Paul, and Neal says no.
The question of help and helplessness, a major theme in the book, is never satisfactorily resolved—here Norman only follows his questions about Paul up to a certain extent, and then discards them as too knotty. Hypocritically, Norman doesn’t feel the same sensitivity about helping Neal, who for him is only exasperating rather than tragic. Neal is even more frustrating to the brothers when he claims more knowledge than he actually has.
Norman knows he won’t catch fish if he keeps fooling around, so he leaves Neal behind and quickly reaches a hole packed with fish. At first, when a fish strikes he sets the hook too quickly, so that it can’t get embedded in the fish’s mouth—instead, he knows, he has to jerk the line as the fish strikes. He’s too used to the fast waters of the Blackfoot, so his timing is off.
Norman has spent a good chunk of text describing the rhythms, often musical in nature, that are important both for success in fly-fishing and for gaining a greater sense of aesthetic harmony and pleasure within nature.
After Norman fixes his timing, he soon grows tired of the small, easy-to-catch fish. Norman wonders what Paul is doing, since he can’t ben wasting his time on 10-inch Brook Trout. He notes that fishing is its own world, but it also includes multiple worlds: one involves fishing for big fish in a small area where the willows on the riverside complicate things for the fisherman. This area, where Norman now is heading, holds “Brown monsters” from the Mississippi River.
Part of fly-fishing as an art involves difficulty and complexity—it’s not simply about catching the most fish that one can. Norman creates a kind of taxonomy of (trout) fly-fishing techniques and aspects, including geographical considerations and specific kinds of fish that haunt different areas of the river.
Norman changes his leader and fly, and waxes his line so that it’s sure to float. He arranges the trout he has caught in the basket, and then closes the lid on that “world” of small fish. He catches sight of a large storm cloud in the distance, and many fish begin to jump—a sign that the weather is changing.
Norman is acutely sensitive to how the fish are acting. Through time and experience, he’s come to learn that fish can have a much better sense of their environment and the weather than humans do.
For Norman right now, the Elkhorn River, mythical Brown Trout, and the weather are all that exist in the world. The Elkhorn marks the edge between the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains: black mountains that turn brown and yellow with the prairie grasses, just as the trout has a black back and brown and yellow sides. Their ugliness makes them somewhat beautiful, Norman thinks.
Norman is absorbed in his world of fly-fishing in the same way one can be absorbed in a novel, a play, or a song. Through his absorption, he becomes increasingly aware of the resonances between the natural beauty of the mountains, and the beauty (or “ugly beauty”) of the fish.
Norman wanders upstream until he reaches a hole where not a single fish is jumping: he assumes that there must be one massive fish there who is scaring the others away. Norman steps to shore and casts from the lower end of the hole. Nothing moves, and he begins to wonder if the hole is entirely empty—if not, it means the big fish has to be out of open water, under the willow bushes (a difficult place to cast).
Part of Norman’s fishing strategy involves deducing a reason or cause from a set of information, here concerning the kinds of fish that may be lurking underwater. In addition to a work of art, here fly-fishing becomes akin to a game of strategy, something enthralling in its own way.
One summer, Paul had been watching Norman fish in open water and, frustrated, said that you can’t catch trout in a bathtub—you can’t be afraid to lose a fly by casting into the willow bushes. Their friend George would always tie more flies for them, Paul had said: a mark of a good day’s fishing is leaving a few flies hanging on the bushes. Still, Norman doesn’t like the prospect of losing flies, even if they’re free.
Little as he may like to admit it, Norman draws on Paul’s expertise and artistic genius in his own fly-fishing. Norman’s continued reluctance to possibly lose flies distinguishes him from his brother’s more excitable, risk-taking personality, in both fly-fishing and in life.
Norman wants to know why fish are jumping everywhere but in this hole. Fly-fishing means looking for answers to questions, he notes. He practices a few casts into the bushes, then walks up to the thick osiers (willows) upstream. He doesn’t make a powerful first cast, but lets the fly float until suddenly checking it, so the fly drops straight down. He notes that a quiet excitement in life is watching yourself as if from afar, creating something beautiful.
Again, Norman treats fishing in this hole as a game or strategy. It has something to do with artistry, but Norman’s strategy also might distinguish him from the way his brother fishes. Paul seems to use not his intellect but his spirit—not attempting to deduce positions but rather inhabiting the same “world” as the fish.
The leader settles on a branch. Norman isn’t sure if he drops the fly into the water, or if the fish leaps out of the water to take the fly, but suddenly the fish has struck. Norman notes that when a big fish strikes, the fisherman’s arm, shoulder, or brain weighs the fish as if on the scale, so that he won’t be disappointed when he lands it: Norman guesses that it weighs seven or eight pounds. The Brown trout thrashes through the bush, weaving it into a basket with the line. Suddenly, it’s gone—for all Norman knows, it may have disappeared into thin air. He wades into the bush to see the knots of fishing tackle, all that’s left.
Norman attempts to describe in detail what most likely takes place in only an instant. The settling of the fly, the strike, and the “weighing” are part of the same continuous movement. In what could only be another instant, the fish disappears, and the way Norman describes it, there is something mystical and unexplainable about this disappearance, which reminds him of his own weakness and incapability.
Norman notes that while poets talk about “spots of time,” fishermen are the ones who really experience eternity compressed into a moment: he’ll remember the fish forever, he says. He hears a voice saying that the fish was a big one. Norman turns to Paul and says, looking down, that he missed him. Paul says that no one can catch such a big fish in the bush. Norman thinks he’s just trying to comfort him, and asks how Paul caught his fish.
Being reminded of his own lack of power is certainly frustrating, but for Norman it is awe-inducing rather than tragic. Of course, Norman then returns to more petty, human-level concerns when he realizes that Paul has been watching all along, and the two continue their dance of sensitivity, reassurance, and competition.
Paul says it was in shallow, open water without 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. The problem with learning from a master, Norman thinks, is that you only pick up some of what he teaches.
Norman had recalled what Paul said about fishing in open water, but this kind of rote learning, he realizes, cannot hope to reach the level of artistic genius—whereas Paul has an intuitive sense of how the fish are behaving and how best to attract them.
Suddenly, without knowing why, Norman asks if he can help Paul with money or anything, because of the other night. Then, nervous at Paul’s silence, he says that maybe Paul needs help fixing the car from the night he chased the rabbit. Paul simply bows his head and remains silent, until he says it’s going to rain.
Once again, the brothers’ positions are quickly inverted, but Norman’s offer of help (which he hadn’t consciously decided to give) seems to backfire, as Paul reacts almost as if embarrassed for Norman, quietly waiting for him to stop.
Then Paul asks where Neal is. Norman is caught off guard, and has to think about it. Paul says Norman will be in trouble, and Norman, thinking about the Scots waiting for him, says he knows. Norman says he’s done, though he hasn’t reached his limit. Paul tries to convince him to continue, but Norman says he’s through—this day won’t let him do what he really wants to do, whether it’s catch a Brown or say something helpful to his brother.
Norman began the day noting how fishermen are always in search of an elusive perfection. Now he seems to give up on that perfection, both in fishing and in life and family—its usual parallel in the book. Norman again refers to the national past of his wife’s family (blood that he shares), here in fearing the spirited anger of the Scottish women.
Paul tells Norman they should find Neal, and says he shouldn’t have left him behind. Norman should try to help him, Paul suggests. Norman sputters that Neal doesn’t like him, Montana, or fishing, and that he doesn’t like Neal, and he didn’t leave him. He feels his excitement from fishing turn to anger at Neal. Paul suggests they help Neal by taking him fishing with them. Norman says Neal doesn’t like fishing, but Paul says he might like someone trying to help him. Norman repeats that he doesn’t understand Paul, who always turned aside any offer of help himself.
In response to Paul’s suggestion that he help Neal, Norman is incredulous, modulating between anger and defensiveness. Paul seems to have the same faith in fishing’s ability to help and to heal that the sergeant at the jail had—but ironically, they’ve gotten into trouble precisely by taking Neal fishing for the first time. Norman grows more skeptical that he can help either Paul or Neal.
Norman and Paul start upstream as the black cloud descends over the canyon. Present-day Norman, now thinking back to that day in 1937, imagines it was like this in 1949, when a giant fire from Mann Gulch swept over the divide, and sixteen Forest Service firemen were killed. Suddenly, the storm rides over them. They look for Neal all over the meadow, then realize he must be safe and dry—at the truck.
The fish were right about the rain, it seems. As usual, Norman is enchanted by the scenery around him. Maclean would actually go on to write another book about this forest fire, which was tragic and destructive but also a reminder of nature’s ultimate power over humans.
Paul and Norman trek back to the truck, soaking wet. Norman pokes his head through the canvas into the back of the truck. The women are holding carving knives—they’ve been making sandwiches—and point them at Norman. Jessie accuses him of having left Neal. Florence says the “poor boy” was exposed to the sun for too long. Norman looks scornfully at Neal’s pale face, shielded by his mother from reality.
“Scorn” continues to be Norman’s de facto way of dealing with and treating Neal, who he sees as babied by his female relatives, while Norman is out in the cold and rain, being “tough” as he has always claimed to be. He still doesn’t accept that Neal may need “help” as well.
Norman feels better having Paul beside him, and hopes that one day he can help Paul as much as he’s trying to help Norman. The women make Paul a sandwich but refuse to give one to Norman. The water leaking through the canvas of the truck turns to vapor, and Norman can smell the vapor of alcohol rising from Neal’s body. He feels that he is half in a sweat bath and half in a cold river. He says silently to Jessie that he did not leave her brother—Neal left him.
Again, Norman is entirely absorbed in his attempts to help his brother—even if the attempts keep failing—to the exclusion of caring about his brother-in-law. Norman’s description of the truck in the rain reflects how unpleasantly he has come to feel about the trip in general, as he feels unjustly blamed for Neal’s weaknesses.
On the way home, the truck gets 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 needs weight in the back of the truck or the wheels will spin out. Weak with hunger, Norman keeps pushing with Paul until they arrive, and Paul leaves for Helena.
While Paul seems to have accepted Neal’s frustrating, spineless ways, Norman continues to fume at Neal’s inability or unwillingness to “be a man,” a Montana necessity of self-sufficiency (even if that philosophy hasn’t turned out so well for Paul).
Norman falls asleep. When he wakes up he realizes that he’ll need to get out of his wife’s way for a few days if she’s to forgive him. He calls Paul to ask if he wants to meet at Seeley Lake, by the Blackfoot Canyon, where they have a cabin. Norman asks Jessie if it wouldn’t be a good idea for him and Paul to get away briefly. She looks sidelong at him and says yes.
Norman’s frustrations with Neal are growing more serious, now threatening even his relationship with his wife. Jessie is clearly as concerned about Neal as Norman is about Paul, though Norman can’t seem to see this connection.
Two days later, as Norman and Paul are driving west, Paul begins to tell Norman about a new girl he’s picked up. Norman wonders if he should listen to this story as literature, or perhaps as an impersonal news story. The girl will only let him have sex with her in the boys’ locker room at the high school gymnasium, Paul says. Norman is wondering if Paul is trying to say he’s in trouble with a woman, or if he’s just concerned about keeping Norman informed even after Norman has settled into marriage.
Again, Norman lacks the tools to interpret Paul’s stories and understand how to react to them. Paul suggested earlier that it’s a good idea for Norman to try to help Neal, and yet Norman can’t fully believe that Paul’s story is a cry for help on his own behalf. Perhaps neither Norman nor Paul wants to believe that Paul is in any kind of trouble.
Norman thinks about how hot it is, and how the fish will probably be all lying on the bottom. Soon he and Paul reach the tamarack trees where their cabin is located, and they hear a car turn off the road behind them. They look around and see someone fall out the side of the car, which has no doors: on the car’s floorboards are a coffee can, a bottle of liquor, and strawberry soda. It’s Old Rawhide who has fallen out of the car, and Neal is nodding in the back seat.
In the middle of their idyll, the brothers are suddenly faced with a newly unwelcome situation—two unwanted companions who have infringed on the sacred time and space of fly-fishing. Neal continues to do the exactly the worst, most disgraceful things possible according to the brothers’ philosophy.
Old Rawhide walks right up to Norman and says she’s brought “Buster” to go fishing with them—she calls all men “Buster” except Norman, whom she calls “you.” Norman thinks he’ll never be able to convince Paul that he didn’t rope him into this on purpose. Buster has no money left, Old Rawhide says. Paul tells Norman to help him, but in response to Norman’s question, Old Rawhide says they don’t need money—they just want to go fishing. Norman peeks into the driver’s seat and asks Neal if he wants to go fishing, even though it’s so hot. Neal repeats that he wants to fish with Norman and Paul, and Paul says, “Let’s go.”
Once again, Paul asks Norman to help Neal, which seems to suggest that Paul wouldn’t be adverse to being helped himself, even though he’s been unable to respond to Norman’s explicit attempts. It seems that Neal has brought Old Rawhide with him in order to submit them both to the guidance of Paul and Norman. Paul, in turn, will never refuse someone who wants to fly-fish, even if Neal is hardly serious in his desire.
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 a minute for Norman to check to see if they’d left the rods in their car—for Paul there is no mercy for fishermen who leave their gear behind. Norman leans back in the car and wonders why his two ways of trying to help people are always offering them money or taking them fishing.
Many people in the novella—Norman, Paul and the desk sergeant at the jail—are confident in the saving power of fishing. Norman is growing more skeptical of this power, however, though his own descriptions of fly-fishing still exude a sense of joy and bliss.
Norman suggests to Paul that they turn away from the canyon, where the water is too rough for Neal, to another bend in the river with pine trees beside it, giving them a shady place to park the car. Norman approaches the fishing hole, recalling one time when he had seen a bear clamber up the mountain on the other side like a bolt of lightning.
For Norman, particular places are an opportunity to reflect on nature’s autonomous, wonder-inducing qualities, and also to recall former moments at which eternal, self-sustaining nature intersected with his temporal, human experience.
Norman peers into the back of the car, where Neal and Old Rawhide look like they’re asleep. Neal rises up slowly and stiffly, and looking out to the river, asks if it’s possible to wade out to the sand bar. Norman says he probably can, so Neal says he’ll fish there. Old Rawhide wakes up and hands Paul the liquor bottle. Paul gives it directly to Neal, as neither he nor Norman will drink before the fishing is over.
Although Neal had said specifically that he wanted to fish with the brothers, he fails to treat fly-fishing with the kind of sacred dignity that Norman and Paul give to it—for Paul, this significance even supersedes his alcohol addiction.
Norman notes that in Montana beer doesn’t count as drinking—Paul counts out eight bottles, and tells Neal where they’ll bury them so that they’ll keep cold. Now, looking back, Norman as narrator recalls wistfully how delicious those beers stashed in the river would be—beers made in the next town over rather than in Milwaukee or St. Louis.
As an old man looking back on this moment, Norman speaks with bittersweet nostalgia of days when, as he sees it, there was a closer connection to nature, and a closer connection between humans inhabiting that nature.
As Paul and Norman wander downstream, Paul remarks that Neal will one day realize he doesn’t like Montana and will leave. Norman says Neal just likes to tell women he likes to fish. They sit on a log and Paul suddenly says maybe he should go to the West Coast, where he’ll be able to do more than just cover the local sports and the police blotter and spend his time getting into trouble. Norman suggests that Paul can cover more important beats in California, and even have his own column. After a pause, Paul stands and picks up his rod, saying that he’ll never leave Montana—he likes the trouble.
Norman and Paul, steadfast Montanans both, find Neal difficult to understand, as someone born in Montana who is nevertheless a total outsider. Treating fly-fishing as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, is to them the height of disgrace. Paul and Norman’s conversation then paints an optimistic picture of what a solution to Paul’s troubles might be, and how Paul might be able to help himself—but Paul immediately discards it.
The 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 himself hardly feels alive. Norman tries to fish around big rocks where fish could be found in the shade, but he only finds shadows. Then he wonders if the grasshoppers will be out in the sun and drag the fish into the open—he fastens on a fly that looks like a grasshopper, but still has no luck.
As usual, Norman attempts to use rational, deductive reasoning to determine where best to fish, though he doesn’t have much luck with it. In a somewhat delirious state from the sun and the heat, Norman feels like a part of the natural landscape, but in this case that means feeling still and hardly alive.
Norman recalls fishing’s “curiosity theory,” which says that fish will sometimes strike at things just to see what they are, not because they look tasty. He ties on a fly covered with deer hair and feathers. He recalls one time when he was fishing and saw a strange creature trying to swim across the Blackfoot River—a bobcat—and thinks that this fly looks just like the wet bobcat. Slowly, a sign of life appears from below and begins to circle the “Bobcat Special,” sinking and then bobbing back up. The fish finally catches sight of Norman and darts out of sight—the only time the “curiosity theory” has nearly worked.
Norman often tries to think his way in to the minds of fish, personifying them as possessing their own characteristics and curiosities. The jumpy, humorous, somewhat irrational nature of his thoughts here can probably be traced to the effect of the boiling-hot sun beating down on him. Once again, Norman’s more pedestrian “theories” work less well than Paul’s more natural artistry.
Norman wants to quit but doesn’t want to tell Paul he didn’t catch anything, so he decides to try one more hole. He walks down the bank and suddenly smells something awful—a dead beaver. Here the fish are jumping, since the dead animal has drawn a swarm of bees over the ground and water. Norman knows that he has the right flies, “generals,” that can imitate insects well. Paul tends to disdain special flies as unnecessary equipment, but Norman quickly draws out a fly that is meant to imitate a bee. His friend George makes flies by filling a tank with water and studying the insect from below, where it looks utterly different—so this fly doesn’t look much like a bee from the fisherman’s perspective.
Norman intrudes here on a scene of natural and environmental regeneration, as certain living things feed off the death of another. As usual, Norman places possibly too much confidence in the tricks of the trade of fly-fishing—here, his friend George’s strategy in constructing flies that would look correct to the fish underwater. Norman is skillful enough at fly-fishing to know how to adapt his actions to the moment and to the fishes’ behavior, though again, he might overestimate his knowledge.
Norman immediately catches three fish, and spends a little more time to catch a fourth so that he’ll have an even number. Now Norman doesn’t feel ashamed to walk back upstream and rest in the shade. He knows he’ll have to wait awhile, since Paul won’t be satisfied with just three or four. Norman sits and stares at the river until it seems that he, the watcher, joins with the river so that there’s only one of them left—it’s the river, Norman thinks.
Norman feels vindicated as his theory and strategy seems to have worked. But his competitive spirit ebbs away for the moment, as Norman grows comfortable enough with the river even to feel himself “becoming” it—a sense in which human frailty can be overcome by and united to eternal nature.
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 he had once known the river when it did flow through this channel. It has a pattern in death, of sharp angles that aren’t exactly straight or smooth. Norman also feels himself becoming the river by knowing how it was made, rushing from glaciers and turning around at big rocks or trees, before picking up sand and rocks and settling to quieter points, then starting again.
In “becoming” the river, Norman does not merely feel himself traversing its current path, but also gains a sense of its former patterns and earlier lives, ones that may not move “straight or smooth”—that is, they may not have a clear meaning for him, or for humanity in general.
Norman notes that fishermen often think of the river as having been made with fishermen in mind, and speak of the “head of the hole” at fast rapids, the “pool” of the turn in the river and the “tail of the hole” at the shallow water where they can wade across and try the other side. Watching the heat mirages, Norman feels that his own life patterns are like the river’s. Now, looking back, he notes that he started this story here, though not yet aware that life stories are more like rivers than books. He had sensed that ahead there lay a sharp turn, circles, and quietness.
Norman contrasts the fisherman’s confidence in naming, labeling, and organizing the river to the river’s ability to exceed and overflow such categorizations. Still, he makes this contrast even while stressing that in some ways, the river is a metaphor for life—or perhaps life is a metaphor for the jagged, curving patterns of the river.
Norman shares the fisherman’s phrase to describe the study of a river’s patterns: “reading the water.” He suggests that telling stories involves the same. The problem is to guess when life should be treated as a joke, as it is easier to read the “waters of tragedy.”
Here Norman (the character) sets the stage for how Maclean (the author) will go about telling his story, weaving his own patterns, both comic and tragic.
Suddenly Norman hears Paul’s voice, asking if he did well. Paul has caught about ten or twelve, and he suggests they go get the beer. The reality of the day, of the beaver, of Old Rawhide and Neal, rushes back to Norman. Paul and Norman are both so thirsty that they find it difficult to swallow. Paul wades into the river where he’d buried the beer. He says he can’t find the bottles, and Norman, unbelieving, looks himself. They’re gone. Paul exclaims that they couldn’t have drunk eight bottles of beer, plus the liquor.
From philosophical, even spiritual musings, Norman is yanked back into mundane reality both by his brother’s competitive spirit and by his recollection of the “thorn in his side”—that is, Neal and Old Rawhide. Yet another beloved aspect of their fly-fishing excursions—the beers at the end of the day—is ruined by the two of them.
As they trudge up the trail, Norman apologizes, saying he wishes he could have stayed away from Neal, but Paul says he couldn’t have. With a sudden burst of energy the brothers roar and race through the river to the shore, propelled by frustration at the thieves. They catch sight of the car, but neither of them can see Neal or Old Rawhide. Then Paul asks what’s on the sandbar. Remembering his previous memory, Norman suggests that it’s bears. Paul says it’s not, since it’s two red figures. In fact, it’s two bare red bodies. Paul and Norman both curse.
Norman feels torn between his brother and his wife’s family, both of whom compel some sense of responsibility on his part. In the midst of what must be an idyllic yet powerful scene of nature, the sight of the couple’s bare bodies cannot be anything less than jarring—the beautiful natural space interrupted by the bodies of Neal and Old Rawhide, “fallen” like Adam and Eve into disgrace.
The 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 in the middle of a Montana river. Paul and Norman wade out to wake the pair up, though Paul pauses to take another look, so that, as he says, he’ll always remember. Norman will never again fish in this hole, which he will always think about as a wild game sanctuary.
Again, Norman as an older narrator is more nostalgic and wistful and less prone to condemn than he was as a younger man. For the younger Norman, this fishing hole is now marred by the disgrace of Neal and Old Rawhide, and by the unsavory nature of the image now seared into his memory.
Norman knows that when the two wake up they will be blind and furious, so he tiptoes around them warily. Even the hairs on their head are fried. Norman points to a tattoo on Old Rawhide’s backside, which Paul says is LO on one cheek and VE on the other. Suddenly, Old Rawhide jumps straight up, red and white with a blue-black tattoo. She looks around wildly and then throws on a few pieces of clothing. Then she saunters back, and asks why the brothers have come back. Norman points to Neal, who groans.
For Norman, Neal and Old Rawhide have taken on the characteristics of beasts rather than humans, and will be unable to recover their reason even upon awakening. Old Rawhide’s tattoo, in all its absurdity, is another example of the disgrace into which the couple has fallen, though Rawhide doesn’t seem to feel any shame at all.
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 they’ll take him home naked. At that, Neal exclaims that he doesn’t want to go home. Norman says that three women will take care of him there, but Neal says he doesn’t want to see the women. Old Rawhide grabs hold of Neal’s arm and leads him slowly across the river. Norman puts her and Neal into the backseat and covers them with a light blanket so as not to get arrested for indecent exposure. But they wriggle out of it, so they drive to Wolf Creek with the pair entirely exposed, Neal mumbling about not wanting to go home. Finally Paul grabs Neal’s arm and says there’s no other place he can go. Paul gets into an argument with Old Rawhide about whether she was going to stay and take care of Buster, but they mainly just curse at each other.
Neal is acting like a petulant child in this passage, whining and complaining, fearing women’s retribution—which makes him even more worthy of scorn and disgrace in the eyes of the “manly,” tough brothers. Norman’s attitude in this scene seems to be one of anger and despair, and contrasts slightly with the tone of Norman-as-narrator, for whom the event has a comical side rather than one of divine disgrace. Still, at the moment, Paul and Norman both find it difficult to see past the fact that the couple entirely ruined their fishing trip and flouted all the carefully laid-out rules of fly-fishing.
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 jumps out, yelling to Paul that he’s a bastard. Paul jumps out to follow her and finally kicks her in the backside. Norman thinks Paul doesn’t really care about her: for them both, the bastard is the one in the back seat, who ruined their summer fishing, violated everything their father had taught them about fishing, and had drunk their beer in the middle of the river. Paul and Norman watch Old Rawhide race down the road. Then Paul says Norman’s in trouble, and they continue home.
Old Rawhide acts as little more than an object and an outlet for Paul and Norman’s frustrations—yet we are also reminded that this is a mostly true story, and so this scene is another sign of Paul’s violent tendencies. Paul had seemed more charitable towards Neal than Norman had in the past, but now they are united in their scorn for Norman’s brother-in-law.
As they arrive, Neal tries frantically to get into his clothes, though he keeps stumbling out of his pants. He looks like a shipwrecked person found on an island. As 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 bring Neal to bed. Jessie, Florence, and Dorothy instantly kick in to nursing mode, until Neal is laid out like a red carcass on white sheets. Paul manages to sneak out the door to go to Black Jack’s, but Norman is held up by Florence, who asks him how Neal has gotten to be burned from head to foot.
The homecoming scene depicts Neal as just as ridiculous and absurd a figure as always, hopping around half-clothed and sunburnt, deserving of scorn (for the brothers at least) rather than the heartfelt worry with which Florence greets the three of them—although it’s certainly understandable for a mother to be concerned about her son when he’s in such a state. At this point, Paul has done what he sees as his duty, and he leaves Norman to face his new family.
Norman knows he can’t lie: part of Scottish faith means a complete foreknowledge of sin. He says that Neal didn’t feel like fishing with them, and when they got back he was asleep in the sand. Florence understands he won’t say anything further, and just says that she loves him. Dorothy pokes her head out of the bedroom and says that Neal will be fine—it’s a second-degree burn, so won’t be more than blisters and fever. She suggests that Norman and Paul head out, as they’re probably not wanted there.
Again referring to his and his wife’s Scottish heritage, Norman uses this family history to account for his strategy in responding to Florence. Surprisingly, Florence turns to love rather than judgment and anger, and Dorothy’s reassurances are just as compassionate. It seems that Norman may have underestimated his wife’s family.
Before Norman closes the door, Jessie tells him to wait. She says he doesn’t like Neal, does he—and Norman asks why he can’t love her without liking Neal too. Norman asks Jessie not to keep testing his love for her. She says he doesn’t seem to understand that she’s trying to help a family member, and isn’t able to, but Norman says he should understand that. Jessie suggests that Norman and Paul finish their Blackfoot fishing trip, but she tells him never to lose touch with her.
At first, Jessie seems more hostile to Norman than either Florence or Dorothy, but we come to see that Jessie and Norman are more alike than not in struggling to determine how best to help those that they love. Although these attempts have threatened to pull the husband and wife apart, they’re now reconciled through understanding their common goals.
Jessie steps backward, then asks why Neal is so burnt. He repeats what he’d said to Florence. Then Jessie asks if he’d happened to see the whore running through town carrying her clothes just before they arrived—he says he did, at a distance. She asks if he’ll try to help Neal with her, should he come back next summer. After a long pause, Norman says he will. Jessie says he won’t come back; she asks why people who want help do better, or no worse, without it. Norman thinks he sees tears in her eyes, but he’s wrong: he’ll never see her cry, and Neal will never return. They vow never to get back out of touch with each other. Looking back, Norman as narrator says they never have, even though now Jessie has died.
More is said here than what Jessie and Norman explicitly articulate. Jessie understands that Norman won’t relate everything that happened, so as to avoid further disgracing Neal. The tragic element of this passage stems from the fact that both Norman and Jessie, at least on some level, understand that they had one opportunity to help Neal, and they’ve missed it. For his part, Norman may well wonder if the same is true for Paul. They are at least partly redeemed, however, in their renewed love for and loyalty to each other.