Lee Sandlin,
Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild
(Pantheon, 2010)

Thieves, con men, drunkards, fools, slave owners, gamblers, vigilantes and murderers fill these entertaining pages about the United States' widest and most famous waterway. Much of it is about the people who worked on the Mississippi River, who were shunned by townsfolk and had to sleep on their boats. Lynching was not uncommon for malefactors who were caught on shore.

Here is a quote from the book about business practices on the river: "The rule in any transaction was that one party was out to cheat the other. People routinely lied and stole with impunity; they took for granted that commerce was indistinguishable from swindling. False weights, ersatz or fraudulent goods, and bait-and-switch sales were the norm."

As dangerous as people were, the Mississippi itself was more threatening. Flooding was constant, and earthquakes could be just as bad. It constantly changed its course and shifted the barriers that lurked a few feet below the water's surface. Falling overboard could be fatal in the strong current. Boats were made of wood, and overcrowded steamboats were firetraps. Epidemics swept through towns.

The wild days did not actually last that long. The first migrations began with the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. In 1882, Samuel Clemens took a steamboat ride after a 20-year absence from the river. He found that all the steamboat companies were bankrupt. By then, the railroads had taken up much of the shipping trade.

But there are a lot of stories from the time in between, and Lee Sandlin is a terrific storyteller. There are duels, fears of a slave revolt that never happened except in a fake memoir, revival meetings that get out of hand, riverboat pirates, the rise of New Orleans, the Civil War battle of Vicksburg and a lot more.

This book is only about 250 pages long, but it seems a lot longer. Not because it is boring, but because there is so much happening in its pages. It is wickedly entertaining.

book review by
Dave Howell

16 April 2011

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