Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It, has an interesting back story. As youngsters, Norman and his brother Paul lived in Helena and Missoula where their father was a Presbyterian minister.
The brothers were fighters and daredevils, and some still remember their antics. Paul later worked for the Helena and Great Falls newspapers, earning a fine reputation as House reporter during the 1930s legislative sessions. In 1938, Norman was teaching at the University of Chicago, and Paul had almost completed his masters degree in English there. In the wee hours of May 3, 1938, Paul was beaten to death in a back alley. Terry Dwyer of the Great Falls Tribune worked with Paul and knew him as a good reporter, but also as a man who would never back down from a fight. Many believed Paul’s murder was mob related—that he owed money, or knew something for which he needed silencing. But the murder was never solved, and Norman had to come to terms with his brother’s death. After he retired from teaching Shakespeare, Norman, at the age of seventy, took up writing. He cast his wild brother as that artistically perfect, but flawed, fly fisherman in A River Runs Through It. As Norman wrote the novella so many years later, he confronted demons of the past, discussing his brother’s death publicly for the first time. Norman’s daughter, Jean Maclean Snyder, told the Livingston Enterprise that her father believed you come to terms with something by understanding it. Norman finally reconciled Paul’s senseless death through his writing. “All good things,” he wrote, “come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”