Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Book Review: Life on the Mississippi by Rinker Buck

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: The travelogue parts are fun
Cons: Didn’t need so much personal history; smug tone; needless politics
The Bottom Line:
Boating down river
Some interesting stories
Drowned with politics

Book Wanders Like a River – Not Always for the Best

When I first heard about Life on the Mississippi, I knew I wanted to read it.  The story of a man who rafted down the Mississippi?  That’s the kind of thing I dream of, so I figured I’d really enjoy the book.  Sadly, it’s wasn’t as good as I’d hoped it would be.

I was not familiar with author Rinker Buck’s other books, but this isn’t the first time his love of history has compelled him to experience something from the United States’ past.  In this case, he decides to build a flatboat and take it on a journey down the Mississippi all the way to New Orleans.  This is a trip several years in the making as he studies up on what it will take to build the boat and safely navigate the river.  Along the way, he also studies up on this part of American history.  When he sets out with a revolving crew, he spends four months on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers traveling a thousand miles.

Along with the story of his journey, we get history.  Lots of history.  Some of it I definitely found interesting, like when he talks about how much commerce was tied to the river and how early it was a key part of America’s economic life as a country.  I’ll admit, if I ever studied this in school, I’d forgotten about it.  However, these parts tend to go on and go into greater detail than I really wanted it to.  I was here for the adventure more than the history.

While Rinker was preparing for this adventure, he lost his mother.  We get passages about her and what a remarkable woman she was.  I’m sure they were cathartic for him to write, but I was left wondering exactly what they had to do with the story I picked up the book to read.

Then there’s the politics.  Yes, this book manages to work in politics.  A bit of it comes in naturally, like the discussion of the part the Mississippi played in the horrors of slavery.  However, it seemed like a stretch to talk about the removal of the Native Americans under President Jackson in relation to the Mississippi.

Much more than that, I’m talking about his subtle and not so subtle digs at people he met along the way.  He has several people who help him crew his boat, one of whom is *gasp* a conservative.  Several times, he marvels that the two of them became good friends despite the fact that the other guy was a conservative.  Honestly, that’s the kind of attitude that saddens me.  Can we no longer consider getting to know someone and becoming friends with them without politics being involved?  Another time, he marvels about being in a group setting and not hearing politics come up.  (Well, until this one guy….)  I can think of plenty of group settings I’ve been in where politics isn’t discussed.  It makes me wonder if Rinker is the guy who brings it up at parties.

I think part of why this rankled was the overall smugness and condescension that radiated off the page at times.  You can tell that Rinker thinks he is right and doesn’t see how anyone else could think about something another way.  And again, some of these discussions have nothing to do with the book at all.

Then there’s his attitude toward some of those who helped him.  I get it that he didn’t get along with them, and one sounded like bad news.  But I feel like he could have been more discreet with this part of the story.  I hope he at least change some of their names because if he didn’t, it’s going to come back to haunt him.  I’m wondering how one of his friendships will fair after what he wrote here, too.

I know, this is sounding like I didn’t like the book.  While obviously there were things I had issues with, I enjoyed other parts.  I never would have considered what it would take to boat down a major river, so reading about all the things Rinker and his crews encountered was enlightening.  The discussions about what he saw and some of the people he met along the way were fun.  I wish we’d gotten more of that and less of some of the other stuff.  But when we were in these passages, I got caught up in the book and wanted to drop everything and do this trip myself.  Never mind that I probably would die, like he was warned numerous times.  That was definitely my favorite running joke.

And I was impressed with how well Rinker rose to the challenges he met along the way.  I learned a lot about what it takes to do something like he did on a fully commercial river.  He is right to take pride in how well he handled those challenges and setbacks.

Obviously, the title is supposed to evoke Mark Twain’s famous book of the same name.  In this case, I feel like it is more marketing gimmick than anything else since we are at least two thirds of the way through the book before he sails onto the Mississippi.  We spend much more time on the Ohio River.  But a book called Life on the Ohio doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I’m not sorry I picked up Life on the Mississippi.  There really was much I enjoyed here.  But the parts I didn’t enjoy kept it from being the good read I wanted it to be.


  1. It's such an interesting concept to pick a bit of history and try to "relive" it so to speak. Given all his work, you'd think he'd be more positive about it all. Too bad this didn't turn out to be a great book.

  2. "Smug Tone" is a total turn off for me. But, I would enjoy the traveling aspect

  3. I either love travel memoirs or they irritate me. This sounds like it would irritate me with the smug tone and the obsession with politics. I definitely agree that he sounds like the guy who brings up politics at parties! And the type I steer clear of!

  4. My wife got this book at the library......thank goodness she didn't pay for it. I am a river towboat pilot and live 12 miles from where Buck's journey started at Elizabeth PA (I normally push 1000' of barges with a TOWBOAT). I only kept reading to see what miss information would come next as far as his river observations. If he would have consulted with a river pilot instead of his collection of "experts" he may have got the terminology straight..

    If you enjoy the book, fine. Keep in mind his river knowledge is marginal at best .


Thanks for stopping by. In order to combat spam, I moderate most comments. I'll get to your comment as soon as I can.