May 2013

Along the mighty Mississippi

By Bill Cheng
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In 1927, the Mississippi River broke free of its banks and flooded parts of its namesake state. The flood scattered the river’s neighbors across the Mississippi Delta region, changing the course of their lives but not separating them for good.

Robert Chatham is a child of 8 when the river destroys his home and his family. Five years after the flood, he’s working as an errand boy at the brothel Beau-Miel in Bruce, 100 miles from Issaquena County, unsure of whether his parents survived. As author Bill Cheng writes, Robert is “thirteen years old and already broken.”

Robert comes to realize he’s “bad crossed,” and trouble follows him wherever he goes. Along the way, one of the characters he meets gives Robert a “devil,” a pinch of rock salt, ash and an Indian-head penny to keep in a pouch around his neck. These will keep trouble away, the man says. But if Robert isn’t exactly trouble-free, well, he’s still alive—a fact that seems miraculous at times, as he traipses through the Mississippi Delta and faces a variety of dangers, including a wild river, angry trappers and a burning building. “He could not count the times he’d come so close to death only to be thrown violently again into life,” Cheng writes. Along the way, Robert stumbles upon people from his past, welcome faces and those not so welcome, and tries to evade the trouble that he can’t seem to lose in search of a happier life.

Chinese-American writer Cheng was raised in New York City and, at the time of writing this book, had yet to set foot in the state of Mississippi. Even so, his lyrical storytelling is reminiscent of tales shared on a front porch. The stories dance through time in this nonlinear, epic adventure tale, skipping between 1927, 1932 and 1941. The rambling story covers an awful lot of territory, emotionally and physically—just like life itself.

Read a Q&A with Bill Cheng for Southern Cross the Dog.

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