June 2024

The Great River

By Boyce Upholt
Review by
Boyce Upholt wrangles the geological, political and cultural history of the wild Mississippi River in a compelling, lively narrative.
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It should come as no surprise that a book about the legendary Mississippi River covers centuries of history, tons of mud, hundreds of levees and a rogues’ gallery of characters. Boyce Upholt turns it all into an absorbing tale in The Great River: The Making and Unmaking of the Mississippi.

When Upholt took on a writing assignment about a paddler and tourist guide in 2015, he had no experience with the Mississippi. In the following years, he would go on to catch rides in oyster boats, tour the delta with a parish councilman and absorb the worries of the president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.

Of course, many before Upholt were also drawn to the river. Spanish explorers are credited with “discovering” the river on a mission to plunder the riches of Indigenous people—a historical narrative Upholt calls “that tired idea that a white man can discover something that has already been used as a watery highway for thousands of years.” Enslaved and free Black people and generations of restless migrating white settlers found their way to the territory alongside the river. Mark Twain and his iconic character, Huck Finn, lured cramped, disillusioned city dwellers to the wild river’s endless spaces. Flatboats gave way to steamboats, and railroads hauled people to the river’s banks in droves. Property battles, poverty, greed, murders and graft ensued.

The Army Corps of Engineers built the longest levee in the world along the lower Mississippi—the second largest human-made structure on Earth, only after the Great Wall of China. Local and federal commissions, boards and agencies would attend to the political wants and economic needs of those invested in the river (especially the powerful and wealthy) ever since. Climate change heightens the river’s many challenges. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina “woke the world,” Upholt writes, as it “ripped through the marshland and put much of New Orleans underwater.” But the life of the river goes on. Mud is dredged here and moved there. Industrial pollutants irrevocably change ecosystems. Engineers continue to construct, deconstruct, rearrange, recreate, divert and revert the waterway. Our attempts to control the wild Mississippi are an endless pursuit.

Upholt manages to wrestle a staggering amount of details into a narrative that is at times a challenge to read. But thanks to his concise yet lively writing style, The Great River is worth the effort. It compellingly pays homage to a waterway worthy of its moniker.

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The Great River

The Great River

By Boyce Upholt
ISBN 9780393867879

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