Book Reviews


Old Glory - A Voyage Down the Mississippi

By Jonathon Raban (1981)

Review by Richard Sheppard


An English travel writer takes a 16-foot motorboat (Raven's Nest) down the length of the Mississippi River. It is not a trip that can be taken on a lark, given the unpredictable personality of what Abraham Lincoln once colorfully described as "the Father of All Waters." Raban has an eye for the unusual in his descriptions of the river and all of its "glory." He maintains a healthy respect and wariness of the many ways the river can turn on a single person in a small boat, as he competes with the weather, larger boats, and the occasional monotony of endless unremarkable riverbanks. He wisely employs a radio on his trip both for critical river reports and to capture a flavor of the myriad lives lived on and near the mighty Mississippi.

Along the way he encounters a cross-section of American mid-westerners who both applaud and engage his observational capacities and offer him a slice of America's oft-genial hospitality. The 1980 presidential race is in progress, and while he avoids political talk, reading this book in 2006 recalls those distant days. Raban makes some friends and declines others, encountering nothing humanly problematic beyond some unruly bikers in a riverside town bar. All in all, if you're inclined to things nautical, Old Glory would make you consider a similar life-affirming journey.