Dreaming the Mississippi
Reviewed by David Lobbig, Associate Curator of Environmental Life
Dreaming the Mississippi is Katherine Fischer’s passionate account of life on the ever-changing great river of North America. With the sympathies and wants of someone having lived long on the river, she gives details of social life in small communities on and in it, the struggles to make sense of and understand its lively personality and power, and the joy and sublimity in its midst. Many of us would do well to take such stock in place and natural processes and to dream of better promise for it.
Fischer takes turns at tackling issues of perception, relationships, and, not so incongruously, the products of hydro-engineering. Much of her experience comes from living on the river’s banks and aboard a 19-foot runabout that she, her husband, and family use near East Dubuque, Illinois. Tying her story to nationally known river events, such as the incredible floods of 1965, 1993, and 2002 and Hurricane Katrina, she makes relevant the dates for which we may have only a blurry sense if we do not live directly with the Mississippi.
With this book, the author attempts to do something about that which Wendell Berry poetically writes concerning his native Ohio River. She shows us that we rightly care most for that which is closest to us (home, family, friends), but that our care emanates outward from that core until we come to see that the whole world depends on how we live and love our life where we are. To that end, Fischer finds ways to explain how extensive wing dikes, channeling, tall levees, and (sadly) legal pollution can be justified in the short view, but how downstream the lessons are broad, painful, and personal.
Instead of the river as a playground on which to ride a Jet Ski, swill six packs, and blast music, it is the common, daily life of Fischer’s acquaintances and family that prevail, showing how a variety of characters live with the river. She shares stories of barge operators, river rats, boaters, fishermen, pilots, sandbaggers, and survivors. Her view contributes to building a contemporary connection to the Mississippi, one of the strongest symbols of the nation.