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Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 19, 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 73 customer reviews

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John M. Barry Reviews Wicked River

John M. Barry is the author of five previous books, including the highly acclaimed and award-winning studies Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, and The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history. His next book, The Creation of the American Soul, about the development of the separation of church and state, will appear in 2011. Read his review of Wicked River:

There are literally thousands of books about the Mississippi River, each of them attempting to capture its majesty. It is a tribute to the river's complexity and power that so few have succeeded. Lee Sandlin does. He writes elegantly and delivers what he promised--the story of the river in the days before engineers began their efforts to drain it of its mystery and protect us from its power. And by demythologizing both the river itself and the men and women on and along the river, by separating fact from legend, Sandlin actually makes it more majestic still.

There's plenty of humor in here, and farce. Perhaps the single story that hits the hardest, though, has nothing about it either humorous or majestic. And it could be farce, something for Mark Twain's illumination, except for the punch line. It is the story of Virgil Stewart. In a kind of American version of the Protocols of Zion, Stewart peddled a supposed plan for a white-led slave uprising that took hold of much of the lower Mississippi Valley. The beatings, murder, and torture his lies engendered only remind us how fearful and stupid humans can be at their worst.

The river today has banks lined with concrete for hundreds of miles, while dams block off tributaries and levees seal the main river in. All that constrains the river. Nonetheless, these very constraints have themselves wreaked havoc on the land the river made--physically made, by the deposit of sediment--along the modern Gulf Coast. And the power and wildness of the river which Sandlin writes about are one great flood away from unleashing. The river is, as T.S. Eliot wrote, "unhonored, unpropitiated / by the worshippers of machine. But waiting, watching and waiting."


Review

"In this lush, exuberant, action-packed and history-drenched book, Sandlin has brought the river back home again. . . . A vivid torrent of facts and passions, in an inspired agitation of water and words. . . . Wicked River is the best kind of history book. It is organized around people and their fates, not wars and dates and treaty signings. It artfully separates reality from fables, but it recognizes that fables have a story to tell, too, that our tall tales and our songs and our exaggerations and our mythologies can be as revelatory as topographical maps and temperature charts."
Chicago Tribune

"Gripping stuff. . . . Appreciators of what Greil Marcus calls the Old, Weird America will savor Wicked River. Its many ghastly scenes, vividly rendered by Mr. Sandlin, started showing up in my dreams. . . . I was surprised, upon finishing Wicked River, to read that this confident and swift-moving book is the author's first. It makes one eager for the next."-John Jeremiah Sullivan, The Wall Street Journal

"A biography of the river in its pre-Twain period."
—The Washington Post

"Entertaining. . . . Chicago essayist and journalist Lee Sandlin tells tales about the Mississippi in the days when the river and the people who floated on it or lived along it were wild and untamed in the extreme. . . . Sandlin has done an impressive amount of research. For all that, his prose manages to avoid the snags and shoals of academic English. . . . A lot of fun to read."
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Remarkable. . . . Told with the same verve and affinity for a good yarn that encomia to the river tend to inspire, Wicked River looks at life along the Mississippi in the 19th century, before Twain had us thinking it was all Americana adventures. . . . Sandlin may singlehandedly destroy the view that the Midwest is a mellow place."
—Time Out Chicago

"Marvelously captured. . . . A superb book debut. . . . Sandlin writes of a recurring sense of looming catastrophe that gripped many residents. . . . Fascinating."
—Chicago Sun-Times

"Sumptuous writing and fascinating tales of the days when life on the Mississippi was rough and wild. . . . Sandlin transports readers back to a renegade time on the Mississippi, a rollicking ride full of marauders, floating brothels and rough characters spit straight from the pen of Twain himself. Sandlin's own prose style is a fluvial joy."
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

"A gripping look back at the forgotten history of the river that made America."
—The Daily Beast

"Splendid. . . . Intriguing. . . . Full of great stories. . . . makes for amusing and stimulating reading."
—Columbus Commercial Dispatch (MS)

"[A] superb book debut. . . . Thoroughly engaging, entertaining and seductively educational history. . . . a grand, clear-eyed look at river towns' 'semi-barbarism.'"
The Denver Post

"Sandlin pulls no punches . . . it's almost as if he decided Twain was wrong and we need to find out the truth. He tells of pirates, drownings and slavery even uglier than most history books will tell us, of people who fell off boats and had no way of being rescued in a wilderness. . . . if you love the river and its history, read it. It's fun."
—Rochester (MN) Post-Bulletin

"A gripping book that plunges you into a rich dark stretch of visceral history. I read it in two sittings and got up shaken."
—Garrison Keillor

"Raucous, fascinating and fun. . . . [Lee] Sandlin debuts with a rollicking history of the Mississippi Valley before commerce and technology tamed it. . . . [He] seems to have adopted some of Twain’s technique in Life On the Mississippi—i.e., disappearing for pages into long narratives/legends/rumors associated with the valley and its denizens. . . . [He] provides some John McPhee–like detail about geology and riverine history, and also examines the human history of the region. . . . Apart from his generous offering of surprising facts, it’s obvious that Sandlin loves the lore of the river, its narratives, legends and lies. . . . Readers will delight in stories about Annie Christmas (who wrote tales about prostitutes), Marie Laveau (the Voodoo Queen), the Crow’s Nest pirates and John Murrell and his so-called “Mystic Clan. . . .Gorgeous. ”
—Kirkus

"Wicked River almost makes you feel guilty for enjoying an education so much. I learned things at every S-curve, neck deep in a fine, fine story. I lived a stone's throw from that river, and though I knew it flowed through eons of meanness and sadness and ribaldry, I didn't know it was this twisted. "
—Rick Bragg, author of The Prince of Frogtown

“Great stuff, essential stuff, and yeah, wicked.” 
—Roy Blount Jr, author of Alphabet Juice and Long Time Leaving Dispatches From Up South

"Geographically, culturally, and metaphorically, the Mississippi River has been at the center of American reality and imagination for 400 years. In Wicked River, Lee Sandlin has lived up to his epic subject, taking us into overlooked, if not forgotten, epochs of history and folklore. Through labor and erudition he weaves the incredibly complicated strands of a story that seems too big to contemplate into a coherent tale that is surprising and entertaining on every page. He's made the river his own, and extends it as a welcome gift to the reader."
—Anthony Walton, author of Mississippi: An American Journey

"What a wickedly wild ride of a read! I loved this book! It may be nonfiction, but Sandlin tells his stories with a narrative drive that any novelist would envy. The events and characters from the early days along the Mississippi, which he so evocatively recreates, are among the most fascinating you’ll ever encounter anywhere. Honest to god, reading history has never been more fun!".
—William Kent Krueger, author of Heaven's Keep

“One of the best book’s ever written about the Mississippi River. Each page rounds a new bend full of delirious missionaries, hell-bent-for-speed steamboat captains, and gaudy traders in ‘fancy girl’ slave prostitutes. You won’t put it down till you’ve read every steamy, malarial, fascinating page.”
—Mike Tidwell, author of Bayou Farewell

“Today we think of the Mississippi River as an elder statesman of the American landscape, but for most of the nineteenth century it was pure frontier: unruly, unregulated, and dangerous. Wicked River perfectly captures the great river's secret history, overflowing with wonderfully chosen and impeccably delivered character sketches, set pieces, and side trips.”
—Scott W. Berg, author of Grand Avenues

“In a narrative worthy of Mark Twain, Lee Sandlin tells of the Mississippi River when it was not only wild but wicked, home to sharpers and humbuggers, jackanapes, tub thumpers, and naked revelers.  This is a grand tale of America’s mightiest river and the larger-than-life men and women who rode its waves into history.”
—Sandra Dallas, author of Whiter Than Snow and Prayers for Sale

“A fascinating book, rich in detail and lore, the kind of strange object one wants to curl up with for long periods of time and gaze into the past we know much less well than we imagine. Wicked River is bound to cause a stir among readers who always want to know a little more about some place or some thing than the usual sources allow. Reading it is going to school again, in the best possible way. An entrance into a world so magical and unlikely that every page is a new episode full of real swashbuckling, nasty critters (human), and the roiling history of the big bad river.”
—Frederick Barthelme, author of Waveland

"[A] superb book debut. . . . Thoroughly engaging, entertaining and seductively educational history. . . . a grand, clear-eyed look at river towns' 'semi-barbarism.'"
—The Denver Post

"Sandlin pulls no punches . . . it's almost as if he decided Twain was wrong and we need to find out the truth. He tells of pirates, drownings and slavery even uglier than most history books will tell us, of people who fell off boats and had no way of being rescued in a wilderness. . . . if you love the river and its history, read it. It's fun."
—Rochester (MN) Post-Bulletin
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First edition (October 19, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307378519
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307378514
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #455,835 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on October 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover
If you have read Mark Twain's wonderful Life on the Mississippi, you have seen the classic portrait of steamboating on the great river, with its sense of privilege, adventure, and (essential in Twain) comedy. According to Chicago journalist Lee Sandlin, in the splendid Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild (Pantheon), "Twain never pretended to be writing documentary realism. His Mississippi, for all its historical specificity, was still at bottom a nostalgic daydream." You will remember how Huck and Jim fleeing on their raft did fine as long as they floated down the river; it was only when they tied up and got involved in activities on shore that they had trouble. "Twain's predecessors hadn't seen it that way," Sandlin writes. "To them the Mississippi had been crowded, filthy, chaotic, and dangerous." Sandlin has drawn upon the writings of these predecessors to describe something closer to the river as it was, rather than as the grand old man of American letters remembered it. Twain will always remain essential in our understanding of the river, for his understanding, nostalgic though it might be, is also authentic. But Sandlin's book is full of great stories, too, and corruption and plagues and floods and snags. It is not a corrective to Twain's picture, but a description of a different type of river in a different time.

Before the steamboats, there were smaller, human-powered craft, all of which went generally down the river because there was not a way of easily fighting the current. Flatboats, for instance, carried plenty of cargo, but were worth little, so when they got to New Orleans and unloaded, they were broken up and sold for scrap, and were known as "the boats that never came back." The wild river was completely different from anything we know of now.
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By Trundle on October 29, 2010
Format: Hardcover
A delightful, fascinating look at the Mississippi River before the Army Corps of Engineers tried to tame it. Sandlin makes good use of a range of original source materials. He tells about the river itself, e.g., its immense size, the dangers posed by its constantly changing channels, uneven depth, and the obstacles in it. And he makes come alive the ways in which people managed to live (survive might be a better word) on and along it. Sandlin explains the problems people faced when going down-river: shifting obstacles, wildly fluctuating depths, pirates. And he presents the difficulties of going up-river against impossible currents and windless days (obstacles so great that some chose to walk the hundreds of miles to get back rather than face the river). He discusses such natural events as the immense 1844 flood and the impact of the New Madrid earthquake (in the Year of the Comet). That quake appeared to have reversed the river's flow, although apparently it was the upper level of the water that went north, while the lower current continued to flow south. And he tells about the behaviors of the people on and along the river. Sandlin uses both history, personal narrative (possibly exaggerated, as he points out) and legend, making clear which he is relying on at a given time. For anyone who loves the Mississippi, has lived along it, or is simply curious about it, this book is a must-read.
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Format: Hardcover
Lee Sandlin has dredged the Mississippi River and found innumerable treasures of American history. If this book were taught in high school, I might have paid more attention because it's the kind of stuff that'll make your jaw drop with wonder and then delight you all the more because it's not fantasy. It is actual history--though this may be hard to believe.

It seems, in a way, that life before TV, highways, and mega-malls was significantly more cinematic. Not surprisingly. But, I'm talking the stuff of disaster films. Like comet collisions (Chapter 3), pirates and marauders (Chapter 6, and others), and a wreck with a death toll higher than the Titanic's (Chapter 15), just to name a few.

I'd recommend this book to almost anyone because it's entertaining and accessible--history buff or not. It's also evocative, poignant, lyrical and full of feeling.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A view of the Mississippi River that one is not used to seeing. The Mississippi was not always the romantic place as envisioned by Jerome Kerns and Oxcart Hammerstein in :"Show Boat", or the nostalgic tale of Mark Twain in "Tom Sawyer." My own nostalgic memories of the River are from my days as a student at Washington University in St. Louis (pre Gateway Arch) and gathering samples of Mississippi River water at New Madrid to test for possible pollution introduced from a power plant built on the shores of the River. (There was no detectable effect on water quality due to the nearly infinite dilution by the River.)

Today when one observes the Mississippi, he sees the long barges hauling agricultural an the goods for export at New Orleans.
the wild river has been tamed to allow it to become a major means of transportation. The romantic days of the River are confined to "Show Boats" and other paddle-wheelers as tourist attractions. The U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers seems to have a constant battle to keep the river open for traffic in fighting the tendency of the River to want to change course. If one looks at modern mopes of the United States it is observed that parts of Illinois are on the west bank of the Mississippi. One has to wonder if taming the river is really feasible or only a pipe dream.

An easy and informative read.
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