RIVER HORSE by William Least Heat-Moon


A Voyage Across America
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            A coast-to-coast journey by way of great rivers, conducted by a contemporary master of travel writing.

            “I’ve visited every country in the contiguous states except for a handful in the Deep South,” writes William Trogdon, a.k.a. William Least Heat-Moon (Blue Highways, 1983; Prairyerth, 1991).  “Put your finger at random anywhere in [a] United States atlas, and I’ve either been there or within twenty-five miles of it.”  He’d logged hundreds and thousands of road miles, true, but Least Heat-Moon – a skilled sailor and navy veteran – had spent far less time on America’s rivers.  To remedy that, he set out a couple of years ago on a 5,000-mile, four-month journey from Astoria, N.Y., to Astoria, Ore., in the company of an eminently pleasant Sancho Panza whom he calls “Pilotis” and a small crew, his craft a 22-foot-long dory called Nikawa, an Osage Indian word meaning “river horse.”  Least Half-Moon has a lovely, light touch as an instructor, but instruct he does, reminding his readers of the importance of rivers in American history as he travels along the Hudson, Ohio, Missouri, Salmon, and other watercourses.  His asides, the kind of remarks you’d hear in a roadside diner over a steaming cup of bad coffee, are uniformly interesting, Who knew, for instance, that for many years the Mississippi was considered a tributary of the Missouri and not the other way around?  Why does history make so little of Abraham Lincoln’s time working a flatboat along the Ohio River drainage, where he witnessed firsthand the horrors of slavery?  Why was it that until the US Army Corps of Engineers got to tinkering with steam channels, American rivers rarely flooded, rarely caused the catastrophic damage that has shaped the news over the last few years?  Writing with an eye for local color and little-examined history (and sneaking in a pages-long sentence worthy of James Joyce in the bargain), Least Heat-Moon turns in a stirring narrative of a journey into landscapes few have seen – an America that “isn’t a big country but hundreds of smaller ones.”

            Vintage Least Heat-Moon, radiant with intelligence and masterful storytelling.  (First printing of 250,000; $250,000 ad/promo; author tour)

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 1999
ISBN: 0-395-63626-4
Page count: 516pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1999


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