Recently, I participated in a writers' workshop. It took place in an inn that actually floats on the Missouri River. For five days, I was to be hypnotized by the river's ever-flowing current. I thought of Mark Twain, an author whose books I have never read. What better time could there be to acquaint myself with Twain? What better work than one about the river?
While the Missouri River is not the Mississippi, it is nevertheless far more impressive than my native Kansas River, a wide stream populated with massive sandbars and piles of driftwood. No ships navigate my river. I'm not sure they ever did. In Life on the Mississippi, Twain paints a portrait of a time when many ships paddled lazily up and down the rivers. Full of anecdotes about his time as a young river boat pilot, Twain's love for the river and its boats is evident. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of reading the first half of this book in the days before, during, and immediately after my river sojourn. Aside from Twain's signature humor, Life on the Mississippi bristled with the life of the river—its sounds and smells. I was glad to have this book as a companion during my own exploration of the river. I don't think I would've enjoyed it nearly as much at any other time.
The second half of Life on the Mississippi loses its magic. From humorous tales of his own experience on the river, Twain switches to the tales of others, statistics, and random observations. Some of these have to do with the Mississippi. Some do not. Basically, Twain was let loose to follow whatever tangents he wanted in this book and the results were underwhelming. There were some great stories within these pages, but most of it was as dry as the Kansas River.