Higher Living Reflections

A Haunting Novel

At the end of A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean says he is “haunted by waters.” It’s a beautiful turn of a phrase, but what does it mean? We generally think of haunting in terms of ghosts in a haunted house or cemetery. In them, the ghosts are real entities, men without skin as Toni Morrison describes them in Beloved. In Maclean’s story however, the haunter is not an entity but a memory, one that took up residence and became etched in his psyche so powerfully that it wouldn’t release its grip. Adding to the depth of the mystery is Maclean’s associating his memories with water, which in Jungian psychotherapy is the realm of the unconscious.

Norman Maclean was a real person who decided to tell the story of his family with an especial focus on his brother, Paul. Without Paul, the story falls short, even becomes trite. It is Paul we find captivating. Incredibly flawed, making poor decision after poor decision, yet remaining endearing. As his father says at the end. He was beautiful. Still, why relate a story of one’s family?

Yes, A River Runs through It is a captivating tale, but why does it have staying power, given it was published in 1976 and made into a film in 1992? Besides, nearly everyone has a tale of their family in which some crazy bat-doodoo stuff took place. The reason is that it’s for that very reason: A River Runs through It is a timeless archetypical tale about a family and one of its incorrigibly endearing member. By doing a masterful job, Maclean avoids falling into the trap of writing a novel—actually, a novella—about a human condition that isn’t novel. To this day, it remains a story in which many find meaning even though their circumstances are vastly different from life in rural Montana a century or so ago. Even if readers and viewers aren’t haunted by memories of their family and coming-of-age years as Norman was by his.

We can, however, become haunted in other ways than through personal memories. Artfully moving tales, because of their author’s mastery of the craft of storytelling and writing, can also strike a chord outside the realm of Mnemosyne. Those stories resonate despite the reader not sharing experiences of the characters or being unable to immediately identify with setting or story arc. Beloved is such a novel for me.

I read Beloved many years ago. But with the unseemly hyperbolic controversy stirred up by book banners and doltish politicos who feed like vampire bats off them, I decided to reread it. Before reading the story though, I read the Foreword by Toni Morrison in the Vintage International, 2004 edition. In it she wrote about how the story came into being. The core was based on an account of Margaret Garner who had escaped from enslavement then murdered one of her children and tried to kill the others rather than see them hauled back into inhuman bondage. Morrison said her intent was to kidnap the reader and throw them into an alien environment so they would share the same experience as the novel’s characters. On that, she was successful. All that I had previously read and saw through photos from the era served as background. This time Beloved took me there. I was on the plantation and the Ohio River and in ramshackle 124, the place Sethe finally called home. I saw the brutal mutilation of her back and of her mind yet sat in wonderment in her determined stoicism.

There was a report of a parent who said their child, a high school IB—International Baccalaureate—student, had nightmares while reading Beloved. Consequently, the parent wanted Beloved banned from their child’s school. At first, I rolled my eyes and thought, Helicopter parent not allowing their child to grow up. I felt sad for the student and others like them sensing the taunting and ridicule they might have to endure at the hands of their peers. But after rereading the novel, I appreciated more fully the young person’s disconcertment. The story is incredibly haunting, to the point it might cause some to experience nightmares. But if I were their parent or teacher, I would work to help them understand how that was a very good thing. Because, truth be told, at times we need to be literarily kidnapped and brutalized for us to understand and accept hard truth of those who were literally.

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  • Laurel McHargue
    April 12, 2022 at 4:03 pm

    Wow, Jerry. I love how you can always see both (all) sides of a situation. Time for me to reread Beloved as I recall it being one of the most haunting books I read when I was a few decades younger.

  • Rick Posner
    April 14, 2022 at 9:45 pm

    Thanks, Jerry, for reminding us that we all need a good dose of reality sometimes to understand the brutality and the purpose of slavery. Dehumanization is still a basic tenet of fascism. We see it everywhere and everyday.

  • Patty Sellers
    April 24, 2022 at 9:42 pm

    Sounds like a really good read. I did see A River Runs Through It. Quite the story too. Funny, I when you said the word “haunting”, I immediately thought of a song that I’ve used that word to describe. It’s done by a band called Disturbed .. not my typical yee haw, but the song is well known .. Sound of Silence. You really hafta listen to this! Keep on keepin on! Love ya!