Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2013, 6:46 pm
Not so thrilled with this birthday gift
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My wife, Judy, gave me a book titled "Wicked River: The Mississippi When it last Ran Wild" for my birthday while I was rereading Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi." I immediately put down Twain's tome and started "Wicked River" which was a huge eight ball to put any author behind.
One thing that has sparked local interest in the book is that the author, Lee Sandlin, is a Chicagoan and spoke in the Quad-Cities last year.
The first things I noticed leafing through the book were that it included a nice collection of historical drawings and photographs and "A Note on Sources" in which Mr. Sandlin lists his sources by chapter and a 43-page index. I like indexes because I sometimes want to "borrow" a quote or something and an index makes it much easier to find. His list of sources runs six pages and includes many books I've never heard of.
However I felt his attitude toward the river was formed too much by a quote on a front page by Frederick Marryat in A Diary in America. " I hate the Mississippi, and as I look down upon its wild and filthy waters, boiling and eddying, and reflect how uncertain is traveling in this region ... I cannot help feeling a disgust at the idea of perishing in such a vile sewer, to be buried in mud and perhaps to be rooted out again by some big-nosed alligator."
He says in his introduction "The Mississippi has (been) dredged, and walled in, and reshaped, and fixed; it has been turned into a gigantic navigation canal, or the world's largest industrial sewer. It hasn't run wild as a river does in nature for more than a hundred years." To a certain extent this is true, but it certainly hasn't been "fixed." Anyone who thinks the river has been "fixed" hasn't seen a drought make Sunset Marina almost a puddle three feet deep, or thousands of acres of prime farmland look more like a fish farm during a flood.
And it isn't "the world's largest industrial sewer" as he calls it. Somehow in all his references he missed the Corps of Engineers water quality survey that I am fond of quoting about which an Illinois EPA water quality surveyor called the Mississippi River close to drinking water quality. Not that the Mississippi is pristine, but as the EPA man said, "the solution to pollution is dilution."
My other complaint was that I was sometimes at a loss to know when he was talking about. He seemed to jump back and forth between the 17th and 19th centuries faster than my mind could jump with him and between the true Mississippi River delta below New Orleans and what is referred to by geologists as "the delta" meaning anything below Memphis.
A large section of the book dwells with crime on the river, fears of a slave revolt in the mid 1800s and the siege of Vicksburg. These sections are excellent and any one of them alone would make the book worth reading.
Jack Tumbleson is a retired copy editor for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus and a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. He can be reached by telephone at (309) 786-5980 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.