"A River Runs Through It" is a semi-autobiographical account of Maclean's relationship with his brother Paul and their upbringing in an early 20th-century Montana family in which "there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." In a 1981 profile of Maclean, Esquire magazine described it as:
It is a story about Maclean and his brother, Paul, who was beaten to death with a gun butt in 1942. It is about not understanding what you love, about not being able to help. It is the truest story I ever read; it might be the best written. And to this day it won’t leave me alone.
"I thought for a while it was the writing that kept bringing it around. That’s the way it comes back to me: I hear the sound of the words, then I see them happen. I spent four hours one afternoon picking out three paragraphs to drop into a column I was writing about the book, and in the end they didn’t translate, because except for the first sentence—'In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing'—there isn’t anything in it that doesn’t depend on what comes before it for its meaning.
The novel is noted for using detailed descriptions of fishing and nature to engage with a number of profound metaphysical questions. In a review for the Chicago Tribune, critic Alfred Kazin stated: "There are passages here of physical rapture in the presence of unsullied primitive America that are as beautiful as anything in Thoreau and Hemingway".
"Logging and Pimping and 'Your pal, Jim'", is the story of Norman Maclean during the summer of 1928 (Maclean was 25), while in graduate school, of working as a logger for the Anaconda Company at a logging camp on the Blackfoot River. At the end of previous summer working at the camp (1927), he made an arrangement to work the next summer with the best logger of the camp, Jim Grierson.
Grierson would work the logging season at a camp, then find a town with a nice Carnegie Public Library, get a library card, find a whore, preferably from the South, and spend the off-season reading, drinking, and having a relationship with the prostitute.
"USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky", tells of part of the summer of Maclean's seventeenth year, 1919. He spent that summer, as he had the previous two, working for the United States Forest Service, this time at Elk Summit, Idaho, west of Blodgett Canyon. Approximately 34 miles (55 km), walking distance, almost due west-northwest of Hamilton, Montana, near White Sand Creek, and north of East Fork Moose Creek.
Working for the U.S. Forest Service, in a very remote part of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness portion of the Selway National Forest (now Clearwater National Forest), Maclean had to extinguish wildfires, build trails (with sledge hammer, chisel and dynamite), pack horses and mules, spend time alone on lookout duty at 7,424 feet (2,263 m) Grave Peak, and string telephone wire.
Elk Summit Work Center: 46°19′36″N 114°38′51″W (46.3265874, -114.6476053), elevation 5,748 feet (1,752 m). The work center is located at the junction of Horse Creek and Hoodoo Creek, north-northwest of Hoodoo Mountain and north-northeast of Hoodoo Lake.
This work, which was first released during 1976, has been published in several formats: as a collection of short stories, bearing a title starting with that of the novella, and as a stand-alone novella, usually as an art book with many photographs, or with many illustrations such as woodcuts. For much of its publishing history it was purposely not advertised, publicity depending on word of mouth and critical mention. Talk of the "Never advertised" book generated a considerable amount of publicity.
For an illustrated version there is still in print a hardcover edition issued in Chicago by the University of Chicago Press in 1989 with ISBN 0-226-50060-8.
The collection of short stories with the novella, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories is issued as a paperback by the University of Chicago Press in 2003 with ISBN 0-226-50066-7.
The small anthology contains two other stories, also partly autobiographical and which precede the events of River: "Logging and Pimping and 'Your pal, Jim'" and "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky".
A detailed publishing history is available online: http://www.firesideangler.net/home/arrtibib.htm
During 1977 the Pulitzer Prize committee for fiction (aka "fiction jury") recommended A River Runs Through It be awarded the prize for that year. The Pulitzer Prize Board, which has final say for awarding the prize, chose to override their recommendation and decided not to award for fiction that year.
In 1992, Robert Redford directed a film of the same name starring Brad Pitt, Craig Sheffer, Tom Skerritt, Brenda Blethyn, and Emily Lloyd. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and Philippe Rousselot won an Oscar for his cinematography.
The film fueled a rise in fly fishing's popularity for a number of years, with increased activity for the fly fishing industry, before the sport waned to previous levels.
"USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky" was turned into a 1995 ABC television film: The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky, also known as Hole in the Sky. The film was directed by John Kent Harrison, with the adaptation written by Robert Wayne, and stars Sam Elliott, Jerry O'Connell, Ricky Jay, and Molly Parker. It was filmed in British Columbia, Canada.
The following quote from the film version of A River Runs Through It (not in the novella) is displayed at the base of the Michael Jordan statue at Chicago's United Center.
“At that moment I knew, surely and clearly, that I was witnessing perfection. He stood before us, suspended above the earth, free from all its laws like a work of art, and I knew, just as surely and clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last.”