Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History Audio CD – Audiobook, 14 Oct 2013
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Reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary...this historical book becomes surprisingly moving and meditative.--Cedar Rapids Gazette. Stunning...With such an expert hand on the tiller, Old Man River is an astonishing journey.--Publishers Weekly(starred review)Nonfiction lovers with eclectic tastes and readers bored by a single-discipline approach will love Schneider's multiple-angle portrait of the Mississippi watershed. The territory Schneider studies is what some dismiss as flyover country, but what fascinating stories flyover country has to tell!--Booklist. Another chockablock, environmentally focused, ambitious volume from Schneider...A wild ride well worth taking.--Kirkus. Paul Schneider recounts history as a novelist might. Once you start one of his books, you find yourself unable to put it down. As I read his story of the Mississippi, I feel like I am revisiting early America on board a raft with Huck and Tom and runaway Jim. I think Mark Twain would be one of the first to congratulate Mr. Schneider on his splendid new book.--James Lee Burke I have heard and sung the painful ballad Old Man River, since my childhood in the 40's, but it was only when I read Paul Schneider's Old Man River, I took a deeper look at the Mississippi River and truly understood with greater clarity how, as the author puts it, the river's history is our history. Travelling with Paul Schneider's words and heart is an eye-opening adventure well worth taking.--Charlayne Hunter-Gault, author of In My Place. A terrific, wonderfully written account of the river, the peoples past and present who lived there, what they loved and what they loathed (often foreigners), how they lived and died and explored and ought in the Old Man's shadow. His tale unfolds from the beginning of north American time and it's the best detective story you'll read this year. --Ward Just, author of An Unfinished Season --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Paul Schneider is the acclaimed author of Bonnie and Clyde, Brutal Journey,The Enduring Shore, and The Adirondacks, a New York Times Book Review Notable Book. He and his family live in West Tisbury, Massachusetts. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The part of the book I found dull and somewhat unrelated were the chapters dealing with the Iroquois league and the Mingo tribe in New York and Pennsylvania. I felt that the internal politics of these tribes and their relations to the French and English colonists were not closely related to the Mississippi story. These tribes lived on the Alleghany, which is part of the basin, but to me it seemed a bit of stretch to get involved in this tangential story.
There was also a brief chapter on the author's finding and losing of Indian artifacts, that felt like a good stand-alone magazine article shoehorned into the book.
Setting aside those criticisms, I enjoyed this book and learned quite a bit. The book begins with prehistoric animals, i.e. giant sloths, mammoths, etc. He slowly segues into the story of the first humans to inhabit the Mississippi basin. The more advanced groupings of these Indians constructed large and mysterious mounds throughout the country. Many of these mounds were gradually plowed under or lie underneath the parking lot of your local grocery story. However some have survived and designated state parks. The author visits some of these sites and offers his first hand impressions of them. Some of the mounds are simply that, large piles of dirt in a conical shape, but others were formed in the shape of animals like snakes and bears.
The story gradually flows into the European exploration of the river basin, beginning with Hernando de Soto and more notably carried out by the larger-than-life la Salle. After the exploration, the book deals with New France and the slow encroachment of the English colonists and the resulting wars for supremacy.
About half-way through the book the Americans begin enter the scene and take over. I thought the second half was the most compelling portion of the book, particularly the chapter on riverboats. It's startling to read how often the boilers on these boats exploded, sending burned passengers flying hundreds of yards into the river and woods. The riverboat engines were the first target of federal safety regulation, which for the most part stopped the explosions. A depressing exception is the Sultana tragedy. It is the worst maritime disaster in American history. 1,600 people died, most of them former Union prisoners from Andersonville trying to return home. Another particularly interesting chapter is "I Long to See You" which in part deals with river pirates. The Harper brothers make Charles Manson look like Mr. Rogers. The river was much wilder place in the early 1800s.
The next to the last chapter discusses the troubling issue of what men have done to change the river. The Mississippi before the Corp of Engineers is to Peter Weller, what the Mississippi is now to Robocop. Humans have altered the river and its tributaries with dams (about 50,000 on the entire watershed), canals, and levees. The effect of these changes have been most detrimental to Louisiana. The levees and the canals channel the silt of the river deep into the Gulf of Mexico rather than spread out across marshes and tidal basins. The dams prevent the silt from traveling in the first place. Without the silt, Louisiana salt marshes are being eaten away by the ocean. The coast loses an area the size of Manhattan every year. The loss of salt marshes on the coast reduce the diversity of the ecosystem. Tidal surges are slowed by marshes, so the smaller the marshes the worse tidal surges are during hurricanes. Furthermore, depriving the Mississippi of its silt impoverishes our farmland in the basin. Finally, using levees to prevent flooding has paradoxically made big floods worse by not allowing the river any outlet.
I hope that this book receives a large audience because for the most part the book is an entertaining read and to quote the author, it's hard to "imagine America without the Mississippi. The river's history is our history."
While weaving through the general story line that author revealed quite a few interesting facts as:
1. The Illinois tribe's ceremonial pipes were called Calumets [p104] as used in the name of an old time baking powder for those of an age to recall such things.
2. There was a Calumet for peace, and one for war, which are distinguished solely by the color of the feathers with which they are adorned. Red is a sign of war." [p106]
3. Although most people think of the Mississippi River flatboats as having been made in Kentucky, they were, in fact primarily made in Brownsville, PA based on a design by an Amish farmer named Jacob Yoder.  The boats were only used for one way travel, primarily to New Orleans where there cargo was sold off and then was the boat itself, whose wood was often used to construct buildings in that fair city.
4. The author states that "As late as 1823, there was only a single log building at Cairo, the juncture of the Ohio and Mississippi." [p237]
5. We learn that during the most destructive flood on the Mississippi in modern times, which occurred in 1927, the river approached a width of 80 miles at Vicksburg, MS. [p324]
6. "[I]n just the eleven states that lie entirely within the watershed there are more than 30,000 dams...the total number of dams that alter the Mississippi River basin is in excess of 50,000." [p330]
I should also mention that a good portion of the last quarter of the book is devoted to Civil War battles fought along and for control of the Mississippi. A nicely researched history made more readable by the addition of the personal experiences thrown in. Easily recommended.
Schneider clearly has command of his material, but his presentation is uneven. In places, his writing style is flowery and akin to style found in work of good literature, while in other places, the writing is straightforward and concise, like one would expect in a well-written work of nonfiction.
The flowery prose is often, but not always, found in one of the several chapters regarding the author’s personal adventures, usually by kayak, on the Mississippi. These personal stories are not particularly illuminating as to the history of the river, nor are they particularly exciting (in one chapter the “dramatic highlight” is the author losing a GPS device
In this reviewer’s opinion, the best chapter in Old Man River is Chapter 32. In this chapter we learn how the geography of the river affected the battle for Vicksburg. More than any other chapter, chapter 32 illustrates the confluence of history and geography.
However, the next very next chapter jumps forward 125 years to the BP oil spill. The chapter after that jumps backward in time to the efforts, over decades, of the Army Corps of Engineers to control the flow of the river. The next chapter, the final chapter, jump backs to personal experience. This is too much jumping about the timeline.
In summary, despite the author’s good research and excellent wordsmithing skills, Old Man River just doesn’t flow.