Sunday, April 3, 2011

Too Many Norman Stories: Story 1. The Truth Behind the Photo

In 1975 my fiancé (now my ex-) and I moved into a neat little condominium, with a wood burning fireplace of all rarities, at 55th and Woodlawn in the Hyde Park neighborhood, a couple of blocks from the University of Chicago campus where we both worked. We soon began to hear about “the old professor” living in the unit below ours, recently rocketed to unbidden celebrity for his two-short-stories-and-a-novella book, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. By 2011, everyone has heard of A River Runs Through It, cinematized by Robert Redford in 1992 (starring young heartthrob Brad Pitt in the role of Norman's brother Paul), but in those days ARRTI was a book, a book of stories resplendent with dimension and imagery, love and loss, trials and triumphs. 

My undergraduate years at the University were only just behind me, and I feared the English professor emeritus would be tough on me. But it wasn’t long before I met and fell unconditionally in love with Norman Maclean. The gruff guy was his persona, but always, always there was affection underpinning everything he said and did around me. And he was kind enough not to complain--much--about our noisy habits over his head.

Norman and his wife Jesse had moved into their condo from a large neighborhood home after their children, John and Jean, had fledged and Jesse was already suffering from the lung ailment that finally took her in 1968, the same year I washed up on the shores of the University of Chicago as a freshman.  

When we entertained we frequently included Norman among other guests, or he came up on his own, for a meal or a cup of coffee. He missed Jesse so terribly, in spite of his busy new career as author-in-demand.  I kept his undated thank-you in which, in his sweetly self-deprecating way, he  reveals all of that and more:

Veronica: It was very nice the other evening. I’m sorry that I stay above [a reference to our home’s location relative to his] too much, because when I’m allowed...I stay too long and talk too much. The fire was nice too. .

I had by this time read, and re-read, ARRTI, and wept (and still do) at the end unfailingly. I was a member of an all-women book club, two monthly meetings of which he graced with his authorial presence. He called us "the Girl Scouts” but there’s no question he enjoyed the opportunity for intimate discussion of his works and respected the bright readers that we were.
The Maclean cabin at Seeley Lake, 1981
Copyrighted and not to be used without permission

Although I’d always been an outdoorsy girl, I didn’t know much about the northern Rockies where the stories were set, so I was thrilled when along came the opportunity in 1981 to stop in at the family cabin on Seeley Lake, Montana where he spent his summers thinking, writing, and fishing.  Norman was a warm host, cooking us big mountain breakfasts, arranging a tour of the local sawmill, driving us far up logging roads into the mountains, and taking us on an unannounced visit to the cabin of this friend Bud Moore and his wife. Alas, the Moores were not in.  But their canoe was sitting by the shore, and Norman said to me, “let’s go for paddle” around the large beaver pond on the property. I was in the back, and my job was to steer. He sat in the bow, offering, as the man (albeit a 79-year old one), the power strokes to move the canoe ahead through the sweet afternoon light of the high mountain waters. Mind you, Norman was an accomplished mountain man, and was especially comfortable on water, be it a rushing trout stream or a serene tarn. Mind you, I was a citified young woman with armloads of camera equipment and boatloads of good will. But no experience or instinct handling a canoe. This made for a slightly riotous ride. When the frustrated Norman turned back to say, “Darlin’!” as he called me and all women he loved, and to unleash annotated comments on what I was doing wrong and how, unless I performed as instructed, we were going to capsize, I whipped the camera to my eye, and caught what has often been captioned as Norman Maclean in “a contemplative moment.” Thank God the canoe made it safely back to shore, my roll of film dry and intact, for the photo, which was first picked up by the University of Chicago Press to use on blurbs and promotional material for later editions of AARTI, has become iconic. 
Copyrighted and not to be used without permission.

More Norman Maclean stories, of which there are many but somehow are mostly about me, to come...

Norman Maclean MUST reads:
  • A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
  • Young Men and Fire: A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire
  • The Norman Maclean Reader: Essays, Letters, and Other Writings by the Author of A River Runs Through It, edited by O. Allen Weltzein
Norman, I will always miss you.  


  1. Thanks so much for this. The photo is priceless. Nice to know the story that goes with it...I find the end of the film, with the old man fishing, chokes me up as well. It is so powerful, the whole story so difficult to accept - the grief so deeply beyond even these few words.

  2. It is indeed a great photo, and I appreciate knowing the story behind it.

    I'd like to repost this photo to my blog where I'm reviewing & discussing Young Men and Fire (where I first encountered this photo). I would attribute to your name and link to this blog post. Is that all right?

    Thank you!