The 1927 Flood: River Power Writ Large

By Kate Havelin

It’s just a simple white pole, planted just off the trail at Fort Snelling State Park’s Pike Island. I stand by it, looking up at the dates painted on the flood marker. The 1952 flood level is taller than I am. Even with my arm stretched overhead, I can’t reach the 1965.

The skinny pole hints at the river’s staggering power. Spring is flood season, and so far, we’re lucky the river is mostly staying in its place. This month’s River Readers Book Club is about The Tilted World, a novel set amid a Mississippi River flood that might have been the country’s worst natural disaster.

It was Good Friday, 1927, when the levee by Greenville, Mississippi failed, and the river washed out a swath of the south. Nearly a million homes were destroyed; some 27,000-square miles of land flooded, and more than 300,000 people had to be rescued from roofs, attics, and high ground. It’s hard to imagine the scope of that long ago devastation, but authors Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly make the epic history personal.

Set in a fictional town of Hobnob Landing, Mississippi, this fast-flowing novel spins the story of a young woman named Dixie Clay Holliver, who, with her philanderer husband, runs a bootleg still making Black Lightning moonshine, with fancy labels designed by Dixie.  Two revenue agents, nicknamed Ham and Dead-Eye Orphan, enter the story, along with an orphaned baby, shell-shocked doughboy named Mookey and sundry other colorful townspeople. But the surging river owns this story. No fictional character can match muscles with the wicked Goliath of water.

People in Hobnob are divided about whether they should have accepted a $50,000 offer from New Orleans to dynamite their levee to save downriver communities like New Orleans.

Blowing up a town sounds like fiction, but dynamiting levees and destroying some towns to save others actually happened. Reading The Tilted World helped me imagine what it must have been like to face the wrath of a river that knew no bounds. Even if you don’t have time to read the book, come to our River Readers Book Club meeting, this Tuesday, April 29th, 7 PM at the Roseville Library, 2180 North Hamline Ave., Roseville.