Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wicked River: the Mississippi by Lee Sandlin ****

Wicked River: The Mississippi by Lee Sandlin recounts the history of the Mississippi during the first part of the nineteenth century from before the War of 1812 through the Civil War. Even though Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were a published decades later, this is the period Mark Twain wrote about.

Rather than telling the story chronologically, Sandlin covers the period with chapters on different aspects of the culture and historical events, including pirates, the Madrid earthquake, commerce, the Battle for Vicksburg, slave insurrections, and panoramas.

Panoramas? What was a Mississippi panorama? The panoramas were typically canvas paintings 20 feet high and several hundred yards long. They contained paintings of life and scenery along the river. These were the precursor to movies. People gathered in theaters and watched the panorama scrolled scrolled across the stage to the accompaniment of a narrator and music. The scenes included dramatic wilderness and current events like floods.

I found the book fascinating with its combination of hard history and details from daily life. Sandlin draws on a wide variety of sources from old newspapers and broadsheets to diaries and letters. This is a casual reader with each chapter relatively independent of the others.

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