cover image The Great River: The Making and Unmaking of the Mississippi

The Great River: The Making and Unmaking of the Mississippi

Boyce Upholt. Norton, $29.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-86787-9

Journalist Upholt debuts with a majestic history of the Mississippi River, beginning with how a subterranean rift and the movement of glaciers created and shaped the waterway over tens of millions of years. Exploring Native Americans’ historical relationship to the Mississippi, Upholt notes that Southeastern tribes farmed fish in the river and maintained a culture of “reciprocal obligation” that mandated they share any surplus with neighboring villages. This philosophy was challenged by European colonizers who sought to commodify the natural world and tame the river, building levees and dams to make it more reliable for commercial transport and create fertile farmlands in the floodplains. These efforts had disastrous consequences, Upholt argues, noting that the depletion of marshlands that once acted as buffers against rising waters has worsened storm-related flooding and that the erection of dams sometimes submerged Native American farmlands and burial mounds. The foregrounding of Native American history highlights alternative ways of relating to nature besides domination, and Upholt’s crystalline prose evokes the grandeur of his subject (“On some mornings, the water lifts into mist so thick you realize there is no end to the air and no beginning to the water, so your boat floats upon and within the river at once”). It’s an exceptional natural history that never loses sight of the human players involved. (June)