Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure (Paperback)
Winning the American Revolution fully opened land west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers, and the way forward was the rivers. A great migration built fast-growing towns like Pittsburgh, where flatboats (and later steamboats) were made for moving surplus farm products down the Ohio and Mississippi. Many thousands of young farmers and rivermen floated to southern states each year, creating a unique river culture. Buck studied this history and decided he had to try the same flatboat trip himself in our age of massive river barge traffic, a crazy notion for an amateur on the water. Lots of river dwellers told him he'd die. He helped build his own flatboat, and the 2,000 mile adventure with a crew full of characters turned out to be awe-inspiring. The book ties his very personal journey to our past and to the ever-changing United States, as it’s seen from the rivers today. While Buck writes with strong and sincere words about the "profoundly tragic" role of American slavery and the devastation of indigenous nations, this is mostly a story of our constant expansion, rough independence, and ingenuity. Buck uses a lively blend of historian’s love of research and storyteller’s blunt humor to describe how he revels in the challenges and meets people of all kinds. I confess that along with my intense anger over America’s brutal history, I have a soft spot for the romance and marvelous details in this story. I enjoyed every bit of Rinker Buck’s wild river ride!— Tim McCarthy
Rinker Buck, In-Person at Boswell, Tuesday, August 16, 6:30 pm. Click here to register now.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * “Audacious…Life on the Mississippi sparkles.” —The Wall Street Journal * “A rich mix of history, reporting, and personal introspection.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch * “Both a travelogue and an engaging history lesson about America’s westward expansion.” —The Christian Science Monitor
The eagerly awaited return of master American storyteller Rinker Buck, Life on the Mississippi is an epic, enchanting blend of history and adventure in which Buck builds a wooden flatboat from the grand “flatboat era” of the 1800s and sails it down the Mississippi River, illuminating the forgotten past of America’s first western frontier.
Seven years ago, readers around the country fell in love with a singular American voice: Rinker Buck, whose infectious curiosity about history launched him across the West in a covered wagon pulled by mules and propelled his book about the trip, The Oregon Trail, to ten weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Now, Buck returns to chronicle his latest incredible adventure: building a wooden flatboat from the bygone era of the early 1800s and journeying down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.
A modern-day Huck Finn, Buck casts off down the river on the flatboat Patience accompanied by an eccentric crew of daring shipmates. Over the course of his voyage, Buck steers his fragile wooden craft through narrow channels dominated by massive cargo barges, rescues his first mate gone overboard, sails blindly through fog, breaks his ribs not once but twice, and camps every night on sandbars, remote islands, and steep levees. As he charts his own journey, he also delivers a richly satisfying work of history that brings to life a lost era.
The role of the flatboat in our country’s evolution is far more significant than most Americans realize. Between 1800 and 1840, millions of farmers, merchants, and teenage adventurers embarked from states like Pennsylvania and Virginia on flatboats headed beyond the Appalachians to Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Settler families repurposed the wood from their boats to build their first cabins in the wilderness; cargo boats were broken apart and sold to build the boomtowns along the water route. Joining the river traffic were floating brothels, called “gun boats”; “smithy boats” for blacksmiths; even “whiskey boats” for alcohol. In the present day, America’s inland rivers are a superhighway dominated by leviathan barges—carrying $80 billion of cargo annually—all descended from flatboats like the ramshackle Patience.
As a historian, Buck resurrects the era’s adventurous spirit, but he also challenges familiar myths about American expansion, confronting the bloody truth behind settlers’ push for land and wealth. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced more than 125,000 members of the Cherokee, Choctaw, and several other tribes to travel the Mississippi on a brutal journey en route to the barrens of Oklahoma. Simultaneously, almost a million enslaved African Americans were carried in flatboats and marched by foot 1,000 miles over the Appalachians to the cotton and cane fields of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, birthing the term “sold down the river.” Buck portrays this watershed era of American expansion as it was really lived.
With a rare narrative power that blends stirring adventure with absorbing untold history, Life on the Mississippi is a muscular and majestic feat of storytelling from a writer who may be the closest that we have today to Mark Twain.
About the Author
Rinker Buck began his career in journalism at the Berkshire Eagle and was a longtime staff writer for the Hartford Courant. He has written for Vanity Fair, New York, Life, and many other publications, and his work has won the PEN New England Award, the Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Writing Award, and the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award. He is the New York Times bestselling author of The Oregon Trail, Flight of Passage, and First Job. He lives in Tennessee.
“Audacious . . . Compelling . . . An antidote to the cynicism of the times . . . Life on the Mississippi sparkles. . . . His prose, like the river itself, has turns that quicken the pulse.”
—Wall Street Journal
“An invigorating blend of history and journalism informs this journey down Old Man River. . . . Besides being a willing and intrepid traveler, Buck is also an able interpreter of history, and it’s clear that he’s devoured a library of Mississippiana. It all makes for an entertaining journey in the manner of William Least Heat-Moon, John McPhee, and other traveler-explainers. For armchair-travel aficionados and frontier-history buffs, it doesn’t get much better.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review), “Best Nonfiction Books of 2022”
“Engaging . . . [Buck is] a travel writer who delights in incongruity and in history’s rhymes.”
—New York Times
“A rich mix of history, reporting, and personal introspection . . . I see Buck at the helm of the Patience when I read Twain’s description of a riverboat captain: ‘A pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived on the earth.’”
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Rinker Buck seems like a guy you could sit down and have a beer and a good chat with. . . . The simplest conversation quickly turns into a master class of storytelling in short form. . . . Life on the Mississippi [is] an epic tale told with wit, wisdom and heart-touching honesty. . . . What the book will certainly do is give readers an up-close look at the waters so few of us see.”
—Gulf Coast Media
“Captivating . . . Rough-edged, well informed, and honest about his own blind spots, Buck is a winning tour guide. American history buffs and armchair adventurers will relish the trip.”
“[A] riveting, revealing, and often side-splitting saga that Oregon Trail fans would expect it to be. . . . Rollicking good reading.”
—New York Journal of Books
“Buck’s ability to deftly balance the intimate and the epic, along with his pervading charm and literary panache, make Life on the Mississippi an entertaining and engrossing read. . . . The book’s most poignant aspect is achieved thanks to the author’s ability to sketch brief, affecting portraits of the people with whom his voyage brings him into contact.”
—Shelf Awareness, “Best Nonfiction Books of 2022”
“Both a travelogue and an engaging history lesson about America’s westward expansion after the Revolutionary War . . . It’s a mark of Buck’s ability to write engagingly of his journey that many readers will conclude that a trip down the Mississippi would be a romantic adventure and a wonderful chance to learn about America’s history.”
—Christian Science Monitor, “Best Nonfiction Books of 2022”
“Life on the Mississippi is a fascinating mix of history and travelogue. . . . Buck shines a light on an important yet forgotten part of American history and shows its relevance to today’s America.”