Before the Mississippi River became a fairly sedate liquid highway for barges, it was wild, cruel, punishing, gorgeous and a whole lot more fun.
Freelance journalist Sandlin debuts with a rollicking history of the Mississippi Valley before commerce and technology tamed it. Unsurprisingly, the author alludes early and often to Mark Twain, and Sandlin seems to have adopted some of Twain’s technique in Life On the Mississippi—i.e., disappearing for pages into long narratives/legends/rumors associated with the valley and its denizens. The author begins with an alarming image: the sewers below Chicago’s streets eventually draining into the river. Other recurring images include the large painted river panoramas whose artists took them about the country, delighting audiences with their beauty, scope and drama. Sandlin provides some John McPhee–like detail about geology and riverine history, and also examines the human history of the region: the American Indian presence, the arrival of the flatboat-keelboat culture (and tales of one early flatboater, Abraham Lincoln) and the rise and fall of the steamboat. We learn about the river’s constantly changing shoreline—each year it flooded fields, ate towns and spread disease—the virtually dissolute, lawless life in the shabby shoreline towns and the shock experienced by foreign visitors (Sandlin reminds us of Frances Trollope’s disdainful sniffs in her 1832 Domestic Manners of the Americans). Apart from his generous offering of surprising facts, it’s obvious that Sandlin loves the lore of the river, its narratives, legends and lies. Disney’s Davy Crockett generation will enjoy reading about Mike Fink, and other readers will delight in stories about Annie Christmas (who wrote tales about prostitutes), Marie Laveau (the Voodoo Queen), the Crow’s Nest pirates and John Murrell and his so-called “Mystic Clan.”
Raucous, fascinating and fun.