Rambling author Morris (Revenge, 2004, etc.) hires a houseboat and captain to take her down the Mississippi on the trail of Mark Twain and the father she missed.
Restless in middle age, with a newly empty Brooklyn nest (daughter Kate had recently left for college), Morris decided it was time to shake her anxiety and prescription drugs for a travel adventure she could make into a new book. She located the River Queen, a sturdy, grime-ridden boat dry-docked near La Crosse, Wisc., and struck a deal with its hard-of-hearing captain, Jerry. Together with the ship’s mechanic Tom and his beloved little black dog (who snarled and lunged at Morris), they eventually got it together and took off downstream two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. It was a poignant journey for Morris, who grew up in Chicago, went East for college in the mid-1960s and never looked back. Her father, who died in 2005 at the age of 102, used to sell ladies’ garments at Klein’s Department Store in Hannibal, Mo., Mark Twain’s legendary hometown. Dad later moved to Illinois and got rich creating the first Midwestern malls, but Morris was raised on his river tales. The trip itself was fairly uneventful, though she was sad to see once-great river towns like Dubuque, Muscatine and Hannibal hollowed by suburban malls. With patient Jerry’s help, Morris learned to steer, navigated the river’s system of locks and dams, endured storms, adjusted to crawling river time and mastered tying a seaman’s knot. Her ineptitude is endearing, as is her need for showers and order on board. Along the way, she offers history about the muddy, meandering river and her angry, aphorism-spouting, toupee-wearing father.
Serenely calibrated, pleasant and heartfelt.