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on 26 January 2006
I read this in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina... I'd been listening to the Randy Newman song "Louisiana 1927" and wanted to know more about the events the song referred to. Anyone with an interest in American history and/or geography should give this a go, and don't be deterred by all the chapters about engineering. I know nothing about physics or engineering, but Mr Barry explains the whole levees vs cut-offs debate so well that I understood it all.
It's as much about the society of the Deep South as it is about the river, and while Katrina was a different kind of weather disaster, you will still note resonances - who bears the brunt, who survives stronger.
John Barry writes beautifully though stylistically he occasionally falls back on the old thriller tradition of cliffhangers... I also wondered whether the row over how to control the Mississippi was really as character-driven as he suggests.
Being a music fan, I also hoped for more on the role of the 1927 floods in the development of Delta blues, but then why should I expect the author to be an expert on the blues as well as engineering systems and social structures in New Orleans? There are other books on that subject, so it's not really a criticism.
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on 22 June 1997
A fabulous story with a brilliant use of interlocking lesser stories on the river, hydro engineering, the Percys of Greenville, the power in New Orleans, and pre-depression era politics. The sections on Herbert Hoover, in dramatic contrast to the rest of the book, are profoundly boring. A few sources cited in the footnotes are missing from the bibliography; several of the tantalizing photo captions have no elaboration in the book; oral history recorded 70 years after the fact that slanders character should be more carefully handled. Barry makes too much of the flood as a major cause of black northward migration (read first part of Nick Lemann's PROMISED LAND for balance) and not enough of the, for some, inevitable claiming of the extreme lower Mississippi by the Atchafalaya (read about it in John McFee's CONTROL OF NATURE).
Still, Barry's book is an awesome story based on a staggering amount of research; a present to us from somone who loves to show how much he loves his subject
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on 12 February 1999
The first section of this book, a "rippin yarn", recounts the fascinating careers of several 19th century men who made their marks on the Mississippi River. The rest of the book is a hodge-podge of variously intriguing and pointless factors leading up to and flowing from the 1927 flood (Why drag the Taylorites into this?). The author spares no effort to bludgeon the reader into accepting that the flood was one of the watershed events of the era, but it doesn't wash. The characterization of key figures is heavy-handed and simplistic, evoking a class struggle in which the rich and powerful (New Orleans (hiss), the Percy family and Herbert Hoover) were all, ultimately if not sooner, evil, or, worse yet, seeking more power. Also, after excoriating the bureaucracies (especially the Corps of Engineers) that made the flood inevitable, the author provides virtually no information about what has been done to deal with the River in the subsequent 70 years. I might tolerate such failings in a magazine article, but not in a work with pretensions to stand as a history reference work.
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on 18 February 1999
I probably wouldn't have reviewed this book were it not for the idiot review and rating from the reader in Bethesda, Md, which got me upset. This is a truly great book. I'm hardly the only person who thinks so. Read the other customer comments, or check out the awards the book's won-- many, including the Francis Parkman Prize, given by the Society of American Historians-- an elite group-- as the outstanding history book of the year. To win the Parkman, Rising Tide properly beat out winners of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. It's better than those books-- more thorough, better written, and far more original.. So obviously professional historians as well as book critics do not share the views of the person from Bethesda.
But enough about awards, which mean nothing anyway. The book itself is an extraordinary (and amazingly well-documented) story that uses a great flood (made almost 1 million homeless, nearly 1% of the total population of the country at the time) as a narrative vehicle to explore the workings of a society, and to show how it changed that society-- everything from presidential politics and the shift of black voters from the Republican to the Democratic Party, to how engineers deal with the river. There are many stories contained in this book, and the author succeeds in weaving them all together. And they are important stories. One, for example, that struck me: it includes a case study of how ego corrupts science, and how as a result millions of people can be held hostage. (This apparently was the one part of the book that even the Bethesda reader liked.) In fact, the Boston Globe review of this book, which alerted me to it (it was another rave review), put it simply and accurately: "This is nothing less than the story of America itself."
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on 6 March 1998
Rising Tide places the Mississippi where it rightfully belongs: front stage center. The river is no mere backdrop, but it is the main piece of this imaginative work of nonfiction. In this respect, Rising Tide calls to mind the work of such writers as Peter Mathiessen, who repeatedly cast the landscape or waterscape as their central character.
I would have preferred another round of editing, though, as Barry repeated himself several times. Also, he portrayed some of the characters as too good or too bad, failing to capture the blends that make such characters come alive. Perhaps even nonfiction writers could benefit from considering the complex, vivid characters from two other works driven by the Mississippi River: Huck Finn and Melville's perplexing The Confidence Man.
The key point, though, is that Barry shares with Twain and Melville the ability to narrate a great story. I couldn't wait to get to the resolution of the dispute between the engineers or to find out how the Percy family would fare in the Delta.
I finished reading Rising Tide about three weeks ago and I find many of the details have remained vivid despite having read several other books since. The persistence of Barry's story is an endorsement of his talents in storytelling and organization.
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on 22 November 1997
As a graduate student working on river restoration issues in the Lower Mississippi Valley, I was impressed by the thorough research and excellent narrative style. This book teaches more about ecology and man's place in the ecosystem than any college course could. It is particularly valuable for younger students who may not be familiar with the 1927 flood and subsequent flood control projects of the Army Corps that dramatically altered many rivers in the Mississippi Valley region. The relationship to the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act become apparent as one reads this treatise. Presently, our government is spending millions of dollars on research and restoration efforts to undo the ecological damage caused by greed, bureaucratic incompetence, and plantation mentality. The isolation of today's rivers from their floodplain by levees is one of the ecological challenges facing future generations of Americans. This book is a primer for any student of river/floodplain ecology.
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on 4 May 1997
Recently in The Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley wrote of this book " . . . breathtaking stuff," predicting it could be "One of those rare exceptions . . . a book that gets out into the larger culture, that acquires social and political as well as literary and/or journalistic import."
The greatest natural disaster that the United States has ever experienced is the Missisippi flood of 1927. Read "Rising Tide" to put into context all other natural disasters you may know about, up to and including the floods of current media coverage.
"Rising Tide" not only relates amazing detail about the physical flood, but also tells us about scoundrels and heroes, from the most obscure to the most famous.
John M. Barry brings his unique insight, based on his years of research, to present us American history as never fully revealed before. This book is a "10."
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on 19 April 1997
Mr. Barry has done a very credible job in trying to present a history of the the great Mississippi flood of 1927. After reading the book, one cannot help but to wonder what might have happened to the crescent city if the levee had not been blown up. Would Huey Long have ever bcome a power to be recognized? Would Herbert Hoover had been elected President? Would the plight of the Afro-American been reduced or increased?

The major problem with the book is the diversity used in trying to bring this disaster into perspective. Perhaps some of the references noted in the back of the book would lead some to wonder if these were innuendo or just idle gossip?

The Mississippi is a river that is not only a stream creates life in the surrounding lands as it flow by, but also creates thoughts and feelings in any writer who has either seen or experienced it's might.
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on 4 June 1999
For those of us who only know the United States from history, movies and occasional visits, this book succeeds wonderfully well in capturing the epic scale on which so many events seem to happen in America. I did see the Mississippi river once, back in 1983, and this book brought back vivid memories of what an extraordinary force of nature it is. The book also evoked happy memories of a few days spent in New Orleans. As a work of history, the book could perhaps have been edited a little more tightly, and I agree with one or two other reviewers who have suggested that it fails to convey all the subtleties of New Orleans and Delta life in the 1920s. But it is a great story, and I think Barry is justified in devoting a lot of space early on to the question of how 19th-century engineers grappled with bringing the river under control.
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on 8 May 1997
RISING TIDE is a brilliant book. The book is nominally about a flood in 1927 that made ONE MILLION people homeless. Yet the book includes everything from a histroy of the development of the engineering profession (built around the story of James Eads, a man more impressive than any Ayn Rand character) and the profession's impact on society to the social forces behind the Ku Klux Klan and Mardi Gras. A stunning narrative succeds in weaving it all together. The flood's repercussions were as big as the disaster itself: it permanently changed southern and presidential politics, redefined race relations in part of the country, and shifted America's population. And, the next time you read a story about a flood you'll know more about how rivers and floods work than whoever wrote it. This book is special, and you will not forget it.
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