Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Old Man River - Paul Schneider

Summary:  In Old Man River, Paul Schneider tells the story of the river at the center of America’s rich history—the Mississippi. Some fifteen thousand years ago, the majestic river provided Paleolithic humans with the routes by which early man began to explore the continent’s interior. Since then, the river has been the site of historical significance, from the arrival of Spanish and French explorers in the 16th century to the Civil War. George Washington fought his first battle near the river, and Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman both came to President Lincoln’s attention after their spectacular victories on the lower Mississippi.

In the 19th century, home-grown folk heroes such as Daniel Boone and the half-alligator, half-horse, Mike Fink, were creatures of the river. Mark Twain and Herman Melville led their characters down its stream in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Confidence-Man. A conduit of real-life American prowess, the Mississippi is also a river of stories and myth.

Schneider traces the history of the Mississippi from its origins in the deep geologic past to the present. Though the busiest waterway on the planet today, the Mississippi remains a paradox—a devastated product of American ingenuity, and a magnificent natural wonder. (Image and Summary from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review:  Paul Schneider has taken one of America's greatest iconic features and unravelled the mysteries surrounding it.  Interspersed with his own experiences on the river, the result is a friendly, comprehensive history of the mighty Mississippi.

Schneider doesn't leave anything out.  Starting with prehistory and the Mississippi's role in not only animal development but in its role of shaping and assisting human society develop, I was completely fascinated.  I loved how his own anecdotes added to the story and gave me some clue about where in history we would be headed. Further, that much history can be heavy.  Let's be honest, the entire history of a river, especially one that dissects a nation, has an extreme potential to be quite plodding.  I don't know if another author could as perfectly balanced the subject manner with an accessible, light writing style that feels nice and easy to read, but accurately and succinctly delivers so much information.  Chock full of interesting facts and historical anecdotes, I was quite taken by the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed Old Man River. It helped that while I was in the midst of reading about the prehistory, I was listening to a series of podcasts that happened to be covering the same tribes and formations.  (Aside:  I love, love the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcasts.  They're so much fun!)  I enjoyed Schneider's feelings about the river, and it definitely made me want to go pick up a canoe and float on down.  

Living in Europe enhanced my appreciation for history.  I don't know what it is, but it's as though the very earth there is older, as though it has so many stories to divulge that it can't help but let them seep through the soil.  I remember feeling something similar the first time I actually saw the Mississippi River.  We used to drive over it multiple times a year on our way to and from Utah, and I wish I had had this book to read on one of those drives.  

My Rating:  Four stars 

For the Sensitive Reader:  The Mississippi river's history is unfortunately quite the bloody one.  Battles between Native American tribes and Europeans, and between the North and the South are discussed.

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