The River Queen
By Mary Morris
Henry Holt & Co. / 288 pages / $24
When she set off on a trip down the Mississippi in September 2005, Mary Morris was a neurotic Brooklyn landlubber. She was preoccupied with so many things: her 102-year-old father's recent death, her daughter's departure for college, her latest book's poor sales and her reliance on a complicated cocktail of medications to help her cope during the day and sleep at night.
Yet by the end of this voyage, chronicled in her memoir The River Queen, Morris is a new woman, acquiring some nautical lingo - deck not floor, chart not map, line not rope - as well as a more outgoing, less self-absorbed personal language. A journey or quest is one of the oldest literary forms, and The River Queen, her fourth travel memoir, is a perfect example of why this genre is so satisfying.
The urbanite who complained about no running water, electricity, window screens, functioning refrigerator or stove when she first boarded River Queen, an old houseboat, still longs for better coffee or a shower any time she wants. That's not a surprise.
But when the boat approaches its destination, Morris has the helm and regrets having to leave it.
Her shipmates, Tom Hafner and Jerry Nelson, are confident in her abilities, Tom's once-snarling rat terrier, Samantha Jean, is thoroughly won over, and the river's many mysterious currents, buoys and obstacles have gradually become signs that she's learned to read - like Mark Twain before her - that reveal the route to safe harbor.
Fifteen days after Hurricane Katrina, the group departed from Richmond Marina onto the Black River, four miles above its confluence with the Mississippi in La Crosse, Wis. They traveled at a whopping 8 mph. "Your average marathoner can do better than that," Morris thinks, impatient and far from "coming to understand the meaning of 'going with the flow.' "
To establish context, Morris mentions the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and 1917 act of Congress that eventually made the Army Corps of Engineers responsible for river management. Its system of levees, locks and dams comprises a "water stairway" that allowed shipping and settlements to flourish on the banks of the continent's main artery. In 2005, by contrast, urban flight and suburban malls had drawn people away from the Mississippi, turning riverside cities into ghost towns, so that Morris sometimes had trouble even buying groceries or getting a meal.
Morris' education as a sailor comes in handy for readers: Whenever Tom or Jerry explains something - that knots, say, aren't only "what you tie, but they are also the speed at which you travel ... a paradox I cannot resolve" - as Morris grapples to understand, we learn too.
Morris has a lovely eye for detail, often at her own expense. She's surprised at "how hard it is to hold a straight line" in a current that seemed so slow until she tries steering. She notices "river time ... has no resemblance to land time," and that items don't just fall on a boat; they fly, skid and slide. Worse, there are countless things to trip on, fall over, run into or bang your head against.
Gas prices soar after Katrina, and the boat gets only a mile per gallon. At almost $4 a gallon, filling up costs nearly $400. During the trip, Morris also describes their encounters with storms, a mayfly invasion, heat and humidity.
But for a writer, the journey is invaluable because, she notes, "Everywhere I look there are stories." Some evenings, they eat soggy pizza, but on others, they tie up at deserted beaches, build a fire, broil steaks and enjoy the stars and solitude.
Of course, The River Queen describes a journey of growth as well as distance, and Morris' mix of Midwest history and family connections there, her dry humor and the crew's daily doings achieve, for the most part, an interesting balance. Her nostalgia for her father - the places he mentioned and the places she never had a chance to ask him about - turn this quest into a vehicle for greater general understanding. Morris' trip - and her tale - are something that everyone could envy.
Irene Wanner is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Times and High Country News. She wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times.