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Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History Hardcover – September 3, 2013
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Nonfiction lovers with eclectic tastes and readers bored by a single-discipline approach will love Schneider’s multiple-angle portrait of the Mississippi watershed. The territory Schneider studies is what some dismiss as flyover country, but what fascinating stories flyover country has to tell! The journey begins with geology and anthropology, exploring how the rivers that drain this huge watershed developed and what we know of the area’s earliest civilizations. Schneider narrates the first European ventures into the watershed, and the roles of the Spanish, French, British, and ultimately Americans—as well as Native Americans, particularly the Iroquois, with whom colonizers sometimes partnered and sometimes battled—in this new land. Key Civil War operations to control the Mississippi are vividly portrayed; the book’s final section examines technology: steamboats, bridges, railroads, and, ultimately, efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to tame the river, which killed so many in its 1920s floods. Throughout, there are bits of memoir, as Schneider sets out on one of the watershed’s rivers by kayak or motorboat. Appropriate for most libraries. --Mary Carroll
“[A] vivid history.” ―The New Yorker
“In fabulous yarn-spinning sentences, [Schneider] whirs through the geologic eras in which the river was formed…A fabulous romp…Schneider is a marvelously personable tour guide…Schneider has a real knack for capturing life on the river.” ―Barnes and Noble Review
“Schneider's book stands out… It's another reminder of how we took the river's heritage for granted for far too long, and why it's worth scrambling today to reclaim and maintain as much of it as we can.” ―Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Paul Schneider recounts history as a novelist might. Once you start one of his books, you find yourself unable to put it down. As I read his story of the Mississippi, I feel like I am revisiting early America on board a raft with Huck and Tom and runaway Jim. I think Mark Twain would be one of the first to congratulate Mr. Schneider on his splendid new book.” ―James Lee Burke
“I have heard and sung the painful ballad ‘Old Man River,' since my childhood in the 40's, but it was only when I read Paul Schneider's Old Man River, I took a deeper look at the Mississippi River and truly understood with greater clarity how, as the author puts it, ‘the river's history is our history.' Travelling with Paul Schneider's words and heart is an eye-opening adventure well worth taking.” ―Charlayne Hunter-Gault, author of In My Place
“A terrific, wonderfully written account of the river, the peoples past and present who lived there, what they loved and what they loathed (often foreigners), how they lived and died and explored and ought in the Old Man's shadow. His tale unfolds from the beginning of north American time and it's the best detective story you'll read this year.” ―Ward Just, author of An Unfinished Season and Exiles in the Garden
“A fascinating and passionate profile of the river that shaped American history and culture.” ―Rosemary Mahoney, author of Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff
“Vividly peopled and comprehensively marshaled, this account makes a fine and flowing read, summarizing the ineffable.” ―Edward Hoagland, author of Notes from the Century Before and Sex and the River Styx
“Paul Schneider takes us on a hugely entertaining journey along one of the world's greatest waterways. It is a pageant of astounding color and variety, sweeping from mammoths, mastodons and paleo-Indians to the British Petroleum disaster, and from Cahokia, the largest pre-Columbian city in America, to fabulous New Orleans. We meet an extraordinary cast of characters, the Spanish conquistadors, French voyageurs, Iroquois raiders, explorers and empire builders of different hues and tongues, river pirates, bare-knuckled boatmen, the ranks of the blue and gray, slaves and civil engineers. The scope is breath-taking, and the seamless blend of history, culture and science is exceptional. This is a lucid, immensely diverting excursion that could only have been written by one who not only knows but loves the Mississippi, and fears for the future of this entrancing and mighty, but acutely vulnerable, highway. It is a great read for anyone who values Americana.” ―John Sugden, author of Nelson: The Sword of Albion
“Reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary...this historical book becomes surprisingly moving and meditative.” ―Cedar Rapids Gazette
“Stunning...With such an expert hand on the tiller, Old Man River is an astonishing journey.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Nonfiction lovers with eclectic tastes and readers bored by a single-discipline approach will love Schneider's multiple-angle portrait of the Mississippi watershed. The territory Schneider studies is what some dismiss as "flyover country," but what fascinating stories "flyover country" has to tell!” ―Booklist
“Another chockablock, environmentally focused, ambitious volume from Schneider...A wild ride well worth taking.” ―Kirkus
Top customer reviews
While weaving through the general story line that author revealed quite a few interesting facts as:
1. The Illinois tribe's ceremonial pipes were called Calumets [p104] as used in the name of an old time baking powder for those of an age to recall such things.
2. There was a Calumet for peace, and one for war, which are distinguished solely by the color of the feathers with which they are adorned. Red is a sign of war." [p106]
3. Although most people think of the Mississippi River flatboats as having been made in Kentucky, they were, in fact primarily made in Brownsville, PA based on a design by an Amish farmer named Jacob Yoder.  The boats were only used for one way travel, primarily to New Orleans where there cargo was sold off and then was the boat itself, whose wood was often used to construct buildings in that fair city.
4. The author states that "As late as 1823, there was only a single log building at Cairo, the juncture of the Ohio and Mississippi." [p237]
5. We learn that during the most destructive flood on the Mississippi in modern times, which occurred in 1927, the river approached a width of 80 miles at Vicksburg, MS. [p324]
6. "[I]n just the eleven states that lie entirely within the watershed there are more than 30,000 dams...the total number of dams that alter the Mississippi River basin is in excess of 50,000." [p330]
I should also mention that a good portion of the last quarter of the book is devoted to Civil War battles fought along and for control of the Mississippi. A nicely researched history made more readable by the addition of the personal experiences thrown in. Easily recommended.
The subject matter seems interesting enough, but the narrative rambles, lacking coherence.
Individually, the chapters are entertaining, but as a whole they are lacking. There is no big picture. Any encyclopedia (am I dating myself?) entry has more depth than this book. I learned more about the Mississippi in Bill Bryson's "One Summer", where the river is only one of many headings than in this book that deals with it exclusively.
The basically chronological organization was appropriate and helpful in understanding what this basin represents in our history. The story starts before man arrives and continues through millennia ending in the present epoch. Sprinkled throughout are first person river experiences of the author, for example, entering at the headwaters of the Allegheny and exploring the mouth near New Orleans.
I liked it from start to finish. Because I enjoy history, there were many places where I paused to assimilate what I had freshly learned with what was in my virtual library. This book enhanced and improved on my knowledge of U. S. History. He touches on the post Ice Age period, early man and the Mounds People; British and French exploration and colonization; the development of agriculture and the role of exports from Jefferson to the present; the execution of the Anaconda Plan in the Civil War; and finishes with today's river fully engineered but ever changing.
I recommend it as alternative history, very interesting. Makes me want to visit Pittsburgh and the tributary country surrounding it, among other places. Allows me to see much more, when my puppy and I stand on the shore. My puppy not so much.