Thursday, October 6, 2016

Old Man River by Paul Schneider

In this fascinating history and travel memoir, Paul Schneider takes the reader on a journey on the Mississippi River, one of the most striking geographical features of the North American continent.  The book is developed around time periods and how the Mississippi played a part in each era.

The author begins with prehistoric times and talks about how the Mississippi was created and the various facts surrounding the river.  He discusses the mammoths and other creatures who were inhabitants at that time.  From there, Schneider moves on to the age of the Native American and how the river impacted the various tribes that made their home there.  The Europeans came in their turn and possession of the river became important from a trading and military basis as the French and English fought to claim it, each willing to take what they wanted from the previous inhabitants.

After the battle to claim territory ended with the English the victor, the author talks about life along the river, the various ships that were used and what was traded and what an average riverman's life was like.  The Civil War brought the prominence of the River back into focus as the North and the South each fought for strategic advantage and the ability to either expand or prohibit slavery.  Finally, Schneider talks about the environmental impacts that the engineering features of levees to hold back floods has had.  That decision and the 50,000 dams that are on the Mississippi these days, mean that what floods occur are more serious, that the farmlands along the river are not periodically replenished by new topsoil, and that Louisiana is slowly being eaten away.  Regardless of topic, the reader learns a myriad of facts, each grounded in relevant context.

Readers should enjoy Schneider's writing style.  It covers each topic in detail but without becoming dry or overwhelming.  The book is a mixture of historical and sociological facts, interspersed with Schneider's own travels on the river.  The author is a nonfiction writer who has been published in various magazines such as The New York Times, O, Audubon, Esquire and The New Yorker.  This book is recommended for readers of history and travel writing.

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