Monday, July 31, 2006

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards (copy)

(I wrote this copy last year for the Southern Reporter)

Just 3 days after an earthquake hits our region, Jay Feldman appears on C-SPAN2’s Book TV discussing, When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes. The book’s March 2005 debut eerily coincides with three quakes of 4.0 magnitude in our New Madrid seismic zone since February tenth.

Adding to the coincidences, the book also appears on my desk Friday afternoon. The same day, an excited patron relates his reaction to the early Thursday morning tremors of June 2, felt in his vegetable garden. Therefore, I had to read this book; Mother Nature herself created the hype.

By weaving three stories together, author Feldman has managed to keep his book from becoming stagnated like the Coldwater Bottoms.

The first story opens with Creek Indians meeting in the woods. Great Indian Warrior Tecumseh is rallying them to action against the whites with another powerful speech. When the Indians refuse to join his uprising, he prophesizes, upon his arrival at Detroit, he will stomp his feet and the earth will tremble. Later that year, the earth does tremble and a wall of water destroys their village.

Drunken slave owner, Lilburne Lewis and equally drunk brother Isham, nephews of Thomas Jefferson, have gathered their male slaves in the cookhouse. In this second story, Slave George is in trouble. He is spread eagle on the floor, as the other slaves must watch his brutal execution. Once dead, the slaves are instructed to dismember and burn the body in the cook’s fire place. Later that night the earth shakes, toppling the chimney and preserving evidence to the horrendous crime.

Feldman encompasses these stories with the fascinating tale of the first steamboat to travel down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Captained by Nicholas Roosevelt, great-grand uncle to Theodore Roosevelt, the newly constructed New Orleans is a joint venture with the famed Roberts, Fulton and Livingston.

Nicholas and Lydia, 24-years younger and very pregnant wife, transverse the dangerous “Falls of the Ohio” which induces Lydia’s birth. The couple, having survived the early perils, feels the rest of the trip will churn smooth like butter. That is until they wake up to discover their beloved New Orleans moving up the river without the aide of steam.

This is a must read for anyone interested in history, the Mississippi River, or the largest earthquake North America has ever recorded. Reel Foot Lake’s formation is also covered and debunks the story I heard as a child. Feldman makes a nice transition into the War of 1812 as he wraps up the aftershocks and their results.

For younger readers, try Judith St. George’s The Amazing Voyage of the New Orleans. Released in 1980, the book still captures the dangers and trails of being the first steamboat to successfully navigate the treacherous, snag laden Mississippi River. Not only did it encounter the surprise earthquake, but survived the “Falls of the Ohio” and a boiler fire. Great for second—fifth graders, especially boys, and the illustrations have hidden humor, kids love pointing out.

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