Wicked River

Here’s our debut review by Paul O’Connor, a veteran news reporter, editorial writer and journalism professor who lives in Raleigh. Paul has traveled the country extensively in recent years, crossing the Mississippi many times. He’s also quite the Mark Twain buff.

By Paul T. O’Connor

WICKED RIVER: THE MISSISSIPPI WHEN IT LAST RAN WILD. By Lee Sandlin. Pantheon Books. Hardcover. 247 pages. $26.95.

Upon the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, reviewers in the Eastern states praised Mark Twain for giving them what they called a new and fresh view of a region that was largely unknown.

So much for the timeliness of those reviews.

By 1884, the Mississippi of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ childhood, the river of Huck and Jim, runaway slaves, wild riverfront towns, steamboat captains, criminal gangs and romantic lore, was gone. Rather than introduce Eastern readers to what existed at the time, Twain was telling them what was long lost.

In Wicked River, veteran writer Lee Sandlin tells the story of the Mississippi during the time when Huck, Jim and Tom Sawyer would have slept on its banks and plied its waters. His account runs from the early days of the 19th century until the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863.

The Mississippi was wicked long before man ever arrived. It winds from Itasca Lake, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico, constantly changing course, flooding its banks and sweeping along all that it encounters.

If creatures adapt to their environments, then early settlers along the Mississippi adapted to its wildness. In a series of topical chapters, Sandlin tells of the gamblers, thieves, hustlers and murderers who populated the river and its banks.

The book is full of wild characters, the very kind that Twain describes so colorfully in Huck Finn and Life on the Mississippi.

There was Mike Fink, who may or may not have been a real person, but whose name and reputation for murder and mayhem were known all along the river’s course.

There was James Ford, who owned a ferry service on the Ohio River, just up from the confluence with the Mississippi. A successful businessman, Ford also crusaded for a safer community and strong law enforcement. But no matter how much he did, robberies and murders continued. And, in the end, folks suspected that it was Ford, himself, who was the mastermind of the area’s criminal gangs. He died in an ambush.

There was the entire city of New Orleans, which was every bit as wild then as its legend holds – and filthier and less healthy than we 21st century readers can imagine.

The Mississippi region was full of drinkers, gamblers, whores and, also, evangelists who would conduct revival meetings in which all would participate. Some times, the participants would dance themselves into a religious fervor so physically exhausting that they would eventually collapse. At other times, often at the same revival, the religious intensity devolved into sexual frenzy, with participants not particular about their partners. The stories put the lie to modern American conceptions of traditional values.

Sandlin’s book is full of interesting information that rarely works itself into other histories. He provides a detailed chapter on the mystery of the Mound Builders, a pre-Euro-American civilization of which we know little. Another chapter centers on the Mississippi panoramas that storytellers presented to audiences around the world. The detailed graphics told the stories of steamboats and the river’s history.

Finally, there are the sad chapters of vigilante justice and white paranoia regarding a suspected, but never proven, plot to provoke a slave rebellion. There was little justice on this frontier, especially when the public was panicked over the expected uprising.

Given all of the excitement in this relatively short history and Sandlin’s engaging writing, one might expect that it will be a quick and easy read. It is not. Each chapter is a self-contained story. Little in the book draws one to the next chapter. So, it’s just too easy to put down. I walked away from the book for days at a time, got back to a new chapter, and felt fully comfortable.

It is a book with a topic, but unfortunately no interpretation, no underlying theory drawn by the author.

So, Wicked River is likely to be a bedside presence in many homes – the book one can read for 15 or 30 minutes one night but then not return to for quite a while. It will leave its readers with a better picture of Huck’s Mississippi, but not a clearer understanding.

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