by Eliza McGrawOctober, 1999
Readers familiar with William Least Heat-Moon's sojourns will welcome this latest addition to his works. Heat-Moon drove a van across America's back roads in Blue Highways, then walked around and through a part of Kansas in PrairyErth. Like the two books that precede it, River Horse is the story of a journey, this one across America by boat. As he did in its predecessors, Heat-Moon intersperses his narrative with bits from other books here, Lewis and Clark's writings join those of Washington Irving, among others. These excerpts constantly remind readers that travel writings tell not only the story of a trip, but also explain its ramifications and context. River Horse the English translation of the Osage name of Heat-Moon's boat, Nikawa begins in New Jersey, as its skipper heads northward with his mate, Pilotis. Pilotis is a compilation of several different people who joined Nikawa's travels. Heat-Moon avoids any gender-specific pronouns when referring to Pilotis, so readers come to view his mate as a near-mythical friend and helper. River Horse is as much concerned with the people as with the waters. As Heat-Moon writes, As if an old tar, Pilotis sang pieces of song, some of them one chorus more than necessary, but I knew the river was at last full upon my friend. The towns through which Nikawa travels also play a large role in its voyage. Heat-Moon and Pilotis help one Missouri town through a flood, eat in diners, and tell successions of disbelieving strangers their planned route from Atlantic to Pacific. Like Blue Highways and PrairyErth, River Horse depends upon the events and places within. Heat-Moon spins tales of Pittsburgh, Wheeling, West Virginia, and smaller towns such as Vevay, Indiana, and Mobridge, South Dakota. Each place holds a different story as Nikawa motors along.
As in his other work, Heat-Moon's lyrical descriptions illuminate the landscape. He writes of birds the Nikawa passed: It was a cool morning of hovering ospreys dropping to trawl their claws across the river, of magpies descending from the sage hills, mergansers taking off in their distinct tippy-toe, killdeer running along the few dry shoals . . . It was a winged morning. Throughout River Horse, Heat-Moon treats the reader to such poetic views, from sea to sea.