Friday, May 31, 2013

Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin

Old Man River. The Father of Waters. The Big Muddy. These are all names that are used for the great river of North America: The Mississippi. The Mississippi River has been an important part of the history, literature, commerce, and myth of the United States for generations. At the end of the War of Independence it became the western boundary of the United States. The navigation of the river was vital to the settlers who moved west of the Allegheny Mountains after the war. After the Louisiana Purchase the Mississippi became the most important waterway in the United States. It was used to move manufactured goods and produce. To move these goods a hardy breed of person was needed. The men and women who worked, travelled, and lived on and along the river river a hardy and wild lot.

Wicked River tells the story of these rowdy people. Perhaps I should say that it tells the stories of the the river people. The book is not really arranged as a continuous narrative, but rather tells a number of different stories about people and events along the river.  The Mississippi River is known to many as the setting of classic Mark Twain stories like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Sandlin starts off with a disadvantage. In the opening of the book he relates his own ignorance of Twain and seems to be almost proud of the fact. This seems odd in a writer who has chosen the Mississippi as his subject. Even more strange is that he didn’t re-read Twain for this project. It is a pity because many of the stories that he relates and many of the character types that he discusses can be seen throughout Twain’s books. In fact if you first read Twain this book will be a little more fun.

Sandlin is a good writer and he does seem to enjoy his subject. He relates stories of river pirates, bandits, rogues, and murderers. The river was a deadly place. He also shares stories about those who settled along the river. The Mississippi seemed to have a very violent culture. I learned some interesting things about the river I did not know. I have lived near the Mississippi for much of my life, yet I did not know that the temperature of the river in the current never gets much above 40 degrees. Anyone falling into the river will not last long before hypothermia kicks in. I was also fascinated by the stories of some of the river pirates. I was reminded of an old Davy Crockett video my grandmother bought me when I was a kid. I was also intrigued by the stories of frontier justice. The lynching courts, the swift and brutal justice, these were aspects of river life I had not read about before.

Wicked RIver is not a great book. It is a good book and it covers a fascinating period in American history. Even a history lover like myself can find new and wonderful stories.

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