Escape into this Wicked River

By Kate Havelin, Community Outreach


Burrowing into books is a cheap and easy escape from endless winter. My latest refuge is Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, a lively 2010 book by Lee Sandlin that’s the topic of our first River Readers Book Club. The book club is open to everyone, so come and bring friends. We’ll get together on Wednesday, March 26, 6 PM at the Rice Street Library meeting room, 1011 Rice Street, St. Paul. Check out Wicked River and chances are the story will pull you in, just as it did me and many other readers.
Voyageurs had good reason to call the Mississippi a wicked river. Sandlin writes that the river used to be more than a hundred feet deep, with strong currents and treacherous sandbars. In the 1800s, roughly one out of every five boats headed downriver ended up wrecked. The deep river’s meandering and shifting shape could be deadly. Unlike many rivers, the Mississippi of old didn’t have mountain valleys or a deep channel that forced it to maintain its shape. Instead, as Sandlin says, “The river remade itself every day.”
Sandlin writes that people who made their living on the river were as wild as the waters they plied. Often called “half horse, half alligator,” river men were known for their drinking, cheating and boastful ways. Sandlin paints vivid panoramas of life on the river, complete with floating daguerreotype studios and brothel boats.
By the time the Civil War ended, tens of millions of people were living along the Mississippi. So it made sense the government stepped in to tame the country’s most potent river. Engineers straightened the river’s unruly curves, cleared the hidden snags and trees, installed hundreds of beacons, and created a safe navigation channel. As Mark Twain wrote, “The government’s snag-boats go patrolling up and down, in these matter-of-fact days, pulling the river’s teeth.”
The fierce river Sandlin describes is long gone; but reading this book swept me back to a wilder time and place. Dive into this book, and it’ll carry you on a wicked adventure.
River Readers Book Club

Wednesday, March 26, 6 PM, Rice Street Library meeting room, 1011 Rice Street, St. Paul. The Mississippi River Fund will provide refreshments. For more information, contact khavelin@missriverfund.org