Recommended: A River Runs Through It

Can you recommend half of a story? Even though Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” nearly dries up towards the end, it has a strong beginning and a fine appreciation for craft. In the course of a rough and tumble narrative about two Presbyterian streetfighting flyfishing brothers, Maclean takes the time to make memorable images:

Below him was the multitudinous river, and, where the rock had parted it around him, big-grained vapor rose. The mini-molecules of water left in the wake of his line made momentary loops of gossamer, disappearing so rapidly in the rising big-grained vapor that they had to be retained in memory to be visualized as loops. The spray emanating from him was finer grained still and enclosed him in a halo of himself. The halo of himself was always there and always disappearing into the rising vapors of the river, which continually circled to the tops of the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind, they became rays of the sun.

And pays close attention to the nuances of mastering an art:

My brother and I would have preferred to start learning how to fish by going out and catching a few, omitting entirely anything difficult or technical in the way of preparation that would take away from the fun. But it wasn’t by way of fun that we were introduced to our father’s art. If our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him. So you too will have to approach the art Marine- and Presbyterian-style, and, if you have never picked up a fly rod before, you will soon find it factually and theologically true that man by nature is a damn mess.

But what I like best about it is hard to cover in short quotes. It’s the way Maclean explores the troubled dynamic between the two brothers and their father’s faith – and the moments when the three of them succeed in their struggle to show each other love, even without being able to find the right words to express it. The good half of this story makes the whole thing worth a read.

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Moose in Cape Breton

If you’re driving across Canada from BC, you start running into signs for moose in eastern Manitoba. As you pass through northern Ontario on highway 17, the number and variety of moose crossing signs ramps up. Then in southern Quebec there is a brief and unexpected interlude of turtle crossing signs. By the time you reach the maritimes, the moose signs are back in force, so that for a while you get kind of jumpy at night. THERE! I HAVE SPOTTED ONE! – you think to yourself as you swerve wildly and dangerously into oncoming traffic, but at 3 in the morning every stump looks like a moose and you just can’t be sure that any of your sightings are legit. Somewhere between St Louis du Ha! Ha! and Fredericton you become a jaded skeptic, laughing bitterly as you hurtle on into increasingly moose-forsaken wastelands. St Louis du Ha! Ha! indeed.

At the beginning you didn’t really care about seeing a moose, but now you do. I had this realization in Cape Breton’s national park. It’s a beautiful park, by the way: badly wall-papered birches, scrubby evergreens and some deciduous species I can’t recall off the top of my head cover the highlands almost to the edges of the cliffs dropping away to the Atlantic. I stopped to hike there. It was fresh and wet and uproariously windy – a 45 minute walk brought me to an exposed part of the headland that jutted out into the ocean, and the wind gusted down the highlands and out to sea so furiously that I could barely stand in one place on the cliff. Gull country for sure. After it started raining I retreated to the forest again and took a different way back than I had come. I saw a walnut sized mouse and six grouse, but no moose, and no other hikers. After about half an hour without seeing anyone, I wondered if I was going the right way. And then I saw a moose! It was a full-sized bull, lying in the long grass about ten feet off the path, just looking at me. That was cool. I took a good look and then kept going, but it wasn’t long before I felt I had gone too far and missed an important fork in the trail, or something. I turned around and went back, keeping an eye out for the moose again, but didn’t see him.

The thing about second-guessing is that it’s hard to stop once you start. First I doubted my navigational skills, and then I doubted my own eyes. Maybe there was no moose, I thought. I could have sworn there was one there, but in the rain, without my glasses on…
After ten minutes of perambulatory confusion I rounded a corner and came upon a family of hikers, who turned out to be Francophones. We managed to communicate well enough with each other that I was able to understand that I had indeed been hiking the right way.

All well and good! But they were slow hikers, and I missed the opportunity to smoothly forge on ahead. So I dawdled behind them for a while, and eventually for something to say I said, “I think there’s a moose ahead.” They understood the word moose, and kept a sharp eye out thereafter. I was just starting to regret my decision to alert them to the possibility of a moose sighting when I saw him again, before any of them had noticed him.

HEY! I stage-whispered. HEY, THERE’S THE MOOSE. The family stopped and looked around expectantly, but in the time it took for my whispers to register, we had gone a little further down the trail, and all I could see was a big stump. The dad thought I was crazy, I think. To myself I thought, are you kidding me? Am I twitchy or what? How did I imagine that that was a moose?

A few seconds later, one of the family whispered urgently in French and I was vindicated – the moose was behind the stump that kind of looked like a moose.