“Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild” by Lee Sandlin 977 SA (also CDBOOK)
I recently discussed this book with the River Action Environmental Book Group, and we were universally disappointed than Sandlin, who lives in Chicago, spent so little time writing about the Upper Mississippi River where the Quad-Cities is. I guess our area just wasn’t as wicked as the Lower Mississippi. What he does cover though is thoroughly interesting. He has a storyteller’s facility and repeats much of the lore (the comet that appeared in 1811 presaged the New Madrid earthquake) and tall tales (the voyageur Mike Fink was half-horse and half-alligator) along with the history (the siege of Vicksburg and the sinking of the steamboat Sultana) and biographies (bridge-builder and diving bell inventor James Eads, and William Johnson, a free man of color who kept slaves). We learn upfront that Mark Twain’s version of the Mississippi River was romanticized. Twain wrote his most famous novels while living in Connecticut and nostalgically looking back on his boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri. Real river life was much more dangerous and hard according to Sandlin. The reader learns about the types of boats, the types of river impediments (sandbars, floating trees, all kinds of snags), the types of towns along the river (plenty rough), and the types of people (even rougher). There were also plenty of references to diseases. Foremost among them was “yellow jack” or yellow fever, the most dreaded disease in the river valley. Taking a big jolt of rye whiskey just before bedtime was supposed to ward it off. Wicked River is loaded with intriguing anecdotes on many other river-related subjects like minstrel shows, artistic panoramas, the mound builders, dueling, and prostitution. If you are interested in the cultural or natural history of the river we live beside, you’ll enjoy this book.