Flowing down from the north country of Minnesota and pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, the mighty Mississippi River drifts along, carrying with it not only the silty detritus of the mud, leaves and pollutants it picks up along its journey but also the legends of pirates, wily boatsmen and confidence men that writers and musicians have memorialized in song and story.
Awash in the glory of the Mississippi, author Paul Schneider bathes us in the river's rise and fall. Old Man River, his new history of the river, carries us along the currents of its natural history from the last ice age through various wars to conquer, possess and inhabit the territory around it, and up through modern times, including attempts by the Army Corps of Engineers to re-chart the course of the river and by conservationists to save the river from dying. As he traces this history, Schneider recounts tales of the many Native American nations that called the river and its delta home, the earliest meetings of Spanish explorers with these tribes, the exit of the Spanish, the entrance of the French and English, and the eventual American takeover of the river and its surrounding territories following the Revolutionary War and particularly the Civil War. Schneider describes the Civil War as "the final great conflagration of the long line of wars for control of the basin that began with de Soto's fleeing army creatures centuries before."
Weaving his own journeys down the river in kayaks and aluminum boats into this larger history, Schneider swimmingly propels us through the beauty of the many headwaters, streams, creeks and eddies that compose the greater Mississippi. Traveling down the Allegheny, for example, the river pulls him into itself: "After a few days of travel, watching it widen and grow from something awkward and crooked into something curving and lovely, it took a part of me."
While the waters of the great river still contain runoff pollution from cornfields and livestock operations, it is now cleaner, thanks to the Clean Water Act, and wildlife flourishes again in many places along the river. However, attempts to change the course of the river continue. After the great flood of 1927, the Army Corps built the Old River Control Structure in an effort to keep the river flowing in its banks; when the 1970 flood almost wiped out the structure, Congress built another one.
As Charley Pride reminds us, the Mississippi River rolls on, and it's a place to come when the "world's spinning round, too fast for me." Schneider's graceful tale allows the power, beauty and grace of the mighty river to wash over us, too.