A blend of history and adventure in which Buck builds a wooden flatboat from the grand 'flatboat era' of the 1800s and sails it down the Mississippi River, illuminating the forgotten past of America's first western frontier.
... promises to attract many other readers for whom a trip down the Mississippi seems a romantic idyll ... Readers of The Oregon Trail, Mr. Buck’s 2015 account of his ramble across the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon, will be familiar with his mix of popular history, wry reportage and quixotic contraptions. That book evoked the great procession of wagon trains that endure in the national imagination as America’s defining pioneer experience. But Life on the Mississippi advances a compelling argument: 'The inland rivers—not the wagon ruts crossing from Missouri to Oregon—were America’s first western frontier' ... Mr. Buck’s acerbic takedowns of those with whom he quarrels can give pause, especially since the objects of his ire lack the forum of a bestselling author to respond in kind ... To his credit, Mr. Buck points some of his sharpest barbs inward ... People along the river offer Mr. Buck and his boatmates meals, guidance and goodwill, and such stories make Life on the Mississippi an antidote to the cynicism of the times ... sparkles with Mr. Buck’s own felicities...His prose, like the river itself, has turns that quicken the pulse ... Not many of us would attempt Mr. Buck’s life on the Mississippi. At its best, though, his book makes us feel that if the invitation came, we’d climb aboard.
... engaging ... 'You’re going to die,' everyone warns Buck, both before and throughout an adventure in which he never comes close. I hesitate to identify this as a disappointment, though I suspect the author would sympathize with this reader’s yearning for vicarious adversity to match his riparian surroundings. If Buck is a proselytizer for any cause while afloat, it may be for the perverse pleasure associated with cracking one’s ribs, which he does — memorably, and for the fifth time — while balancing a tray of biscuits and gravy, eggs and bacon for his crew and ascending a poplar staircase to the deck amid oncoming rollers from a tug. The breakfast survives his fall intact; the rib cage does not
The narrative works as a memoir, a history treatise, and a travel adventure. The author comes to terms with his mother’s death on this journey, but he also places his traveling adventures into a broader historical framework of how flatboats epitomized frontier resilience and ingenuity. Simultaneously, he also explores modern politics and culture, reflects on economic realities both past and present, and considers both ugly and uplifting aspects of American history ... The author’s use of cited local history books in libraries along his journey gives the book a strong factual basis as a history text, and his incorporation of literary words from writers of the flatboat era infuse his own writing with humor and poetic charm. Highly recommended for all libraries.