Old Glory by Jonathan Raban

5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

The Mississippi is the fourth longest river in the world and drains a total of 31 states with a watershed of1,245,000 square miles over its 2300 mile length. In parts, it is up to a mile wide, though the largest lake is 11 miles wide. Raban had first come across this river that cleaves America in two after reading about the Tales of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and wanted to travel along it and absorb the American culture. Starting in Minneapolis which is about 200 miles from the source of the river, he bought a 16-foot Aluminium boat with a 15hp engine, a tiny minnow compared to the vastness of the river. After a crash course in how to handle his new transport and some advice that will prove invaluable later, he is ready to depart, but he just needs to get through the first of the massive locks.

That terrifying experience achieved, the next few days are quite relaxed while cruising downstream. After a days boating, he pulls into the bank to find the nearest hotel or motel and to find some of the locals to talk to. It is a dangerous trip and he has a few near misses. Thankfully he follows the advice that he was given earlier to get off the river when the sky looks strange and just misses a horrendous storm. Apart from these moments, it is a relaxed trip, he enjoys smoking a pipe while watching drifting down the river, only resorting to the whisky when he has been scared witless. One lock keeper advises him to travel at night, but it nearly gets him killed by a barge, so he decides against that.

Where this book comes alive though is his interaction with the people that he meets. He talks to anyone and everyone, from politicians to widows, rednecks and the transient men who work the river. In Memphis, he joins the black reverend judge, Otis Higgs, campaign to overturn the incumbent mayor and sees the endemic racism that was bubbling under the surface of society, something that is worryingly prevalent once again. Every day the river teaches him something new, sometimes it is about the places he passes and other times it is about himself.

This is the second of his books that I have read. The intention is to read them in the order that he published them. Really enjoyed Arabia, but this is another level up again. He is a keen observer of people and places and his writing is spectacular, probing and lyrical. He can sketch a place or a person in a scant number of words, making you feel that you are bobbing along in the boat or sitting alongside him at a bar. Fantastic book. Looking forward to the next, Coasting.

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  1. Tim Hannigan

    Lovely review. I’m vicariously enjoying your discovery of Jonathan Raban! Old Glory is indeed another level up from Arabia, and the great news is that he doesn’t reach the summit until Passage to Juneau, so you’ve a fine ascent still to go!

    • admin

      Thank you, Tim. I do feel my inadequate words cannot do his work justice.

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