Book Review: Home Waters by John Maclean

Book Review: Home Waters by John Maclean



After an award-winning career spanning 30 years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, John Maclean excelled at a second career writing five non-fiction books about wildfire, including Fire and Ashes (2003) and Fire on the Mountain (2009).

It’s no wonder that he’s a talented writer, as his father was Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It, one of the books most beloved by Montanans.

John Maclean’s latest book, Home Waters (2021), is a memoir that, like his father’s masterpiece, reverently examines the way the river and its environs has threaded through his life and career, connecting him to family and place and the course of life that flows through generations.

Naturally, flyfishing figures prominently.

In describing a recent outing on the Blackfoot River, Maclean, now in his 70s and older than his father had been when he wrote his celebrated novella, he writes, “When I was young, I lost a lot of fish by not trusting the tackle—or myself—and holding on too hard, giving the fish a firm brace to shake off the hook. I could not lose this fish that way, I told myself. I’d spent too many decades pursuing this moment: the past haunted the present.”

A meditation on fishing in this way becomes a metaphor for a life, and the elusive lunker stands for the singular moment when one recognizes that the past always leads us to the present.

Just as Norman was “haunted by waters,” so does the past eternally haunt the present.

I don’t think either of them means “haunt” in any sinister sense; rather, in both cases, I think they mean to convey a reverence for the way water and its courses come to define and influence us and lead us always back to ourselves.

Home Waters captures perfectly Maclean’s sense of the way the river he spent summers on as a kid has exerted an unrelenting draw on him, from his upbringing in a family that fished religiously, to his own personal quest for a moment of angling perfection.

Maclean is a master of description, painting for the reader a vivid sense of the landscape, but also of the way it affects the psyche.

“A resting fish will go deep and dark,” he writes, “but a feeding fish will move to spots where there’s an abundance of food: perhaps into fast water that’s carrying half-drowned grasshoppers, or nosing the bottom to stir up cased caddis larvae, or just under a quiet surface awaiting a passing mayfly.”

Maclean skillfully forces the reader down into the water, to see things from the fish’s perspective, but then sinks the hook with this insight: “Ambition comes easy when you’re young; it’s working it out later that gets hard.”

At once an homage to his family and forbears as well as a deep, spiritual investigation of his own life and career, John Maclean’s Home Waters is, like A River Runs Through It, a masterpiece in its genre.

Like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, another world classic that celebrates the relationship between people and rivers, Home Waters ends where it began: “I do not fish alone on the Blackfoot River, ever, even though now I mostly fish it by myself. When I’m on the water, and especially when no one else is around, I feel the presence of generations of my family whose stories run through it.” ISI

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