It’s not easy to tell the complete history of a place, especially when that place, by its very nature, is in a state of constant change. But Paul Schneider does an honorable job exploring the history of the Mississippi river in his new work, “Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History.”
And when I say history, I mean history. Old Man River opens with the prehistoric ice ages and a very dense chapter about geology. Thankfully, Schneider quickly moves from this dense style to a format reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary
He tells a long, complex history through stories of specific people. Names familiar to Iowa readers (La Salle, Joliet, Marquette) become fully realized men as we learn all that can truly go wrong traveling down the Mississippi by boat.
What takes Schneider’s text beyond historical analysis, however, is his inclusion of his own personal journeys along the Mississippi and its tributaries, including a kayaking expedition down the Mississippi with his son. Schneider, like the explorers before him, took careful notes and he beautifully places his personal travels and mediations in the larger context of the history of the region.
As such, this historical book becomes surprisingly moving and meditative.
“To say that a person in a small boat on the Gulf of Mexico is still on the Mississippi is as true as saying that a child in the rain in Minnesota is really feeling the distilled spray from the North Atlantic.
“I had seen Old Man River keep on rolling until he was completely out of sight under the deep blue sea, and I would be lying if I didn’t say I Loved It.”
Schneider’s accessible prose and genuine enthusiasm make “Old Man River” a text not only for academics and river enthusiasts, but those with an interest in the complex tale of human’s quest to discover, claim, and tame the great Mississippi.