| By Rob Rohde-Szudy - Madison,
Wisconsin - USA
Down the Mississippi: A Sixty-Five Year Old
Paddles a Canoe the Length of the Great River to Rediscover
By Leo Sheridan Anderson
Bonus Books, 1992.
Those who know my do-it-yourself writing
might be a bit surprised to see me reviewing something
like this. I checked this
book out from my local library on a whim
as I was searching for books on canoe camping. I figured
it might have some useful information. It turns out
that it does.
Leo Sheridan Anderson
Anderson discusses the (modest) cost
of making such a trip, and even breaks it down by
what he spent on what sort of things. There is also
quite a bit of good information on campsites, river
conditions, canoe performance and the food they ate
along the way.
Yes, I said “they”. Most
of his ten children and their kids took turns accompanying
him. But not his wife. This brings us to the “rediscovering”
in the subtitle. The author is a retired publishing
executive, coping with an obviously failing marriage.
He shares these details in a surprisingly honest and
forthright way. Almost as if the reader is also his
Well, I will confess that I almost put
the book down for good several times because of this.
While a different sort of reader might revel in such
intimacy, it wasn’t what I was after. But he
kept dropping enough trip details that I stayed with
He writes often about how much he misses
his young kids as he is pursuing this quest. The reader
is left wondering what demons could be driving him.
After a few chapters he lets the reader know that
his first wife had been murdered 17 years previously,
and he had never really thought the second marriage
was a great idea since he knew he wouldn’t fall
in love again in the same way. Again I’m wondering
if I really want to know about all this. And again
he deftly rewards my sort of reader for our attention
with a long stretch of detailed travel writing. Which
landings were good and which were bad, which dams
were hard to portage, wildlife sighted, and so forth.
In the next personal revelation we find
out that he and his three youngest kids – teenagers
at the time – were in the same car at the time
of his first wife’s murder. The demons get bigger.
Again I wonder if I’m reading the wrong book.
Again he somehow knows this and gives me more trip
details. I begin to wonder if he’s watching
Truly, I marvel that he could know just
when I was about to put the book down. He had it down
to the paragraph. Anderson must have understood perfectly
that his book would be perused by plenty of people
looking only for trip details. But I was beginning
to wonder how long he could keep me going like this.
I mean, how many campsites will I really care to know
about once he gets south of my stretch of the upper
Well, by the time he was reaching Minneapolis
it was too late and I started to identify with him
a little. If I were to lose my wife …well, let’s
just say I started wanting to know how it turned out
for him. Maybe this was driven home for me by the
fact that he lives less than 125 miles from me, and
only a few miles from where my wife visits friends
every couple weeks. Maybe I only wanted to continue
to keep my loved ones out of whatever situation led
to his tragedy. (The same morbid instincts that lead
so many of us to gawk at traffic accidents, I suppose.)
In chapter 11 he finally provides the
details. Caught in a traffic jam in downtown Chicago
a random psychopath opened fire. He took two bullets.
The third, also meant for him, killed his wife. He
knows this is a big thing to the put the reader through,
so we get two whole chapters of travel details. Waterfront
cafes, backwoods hotels, campgrounds, locks, headwinds,
barge tows and wing dams.
But lest we forget what is driving him,
Chapter 14 is less than a page long. He still feels
compelled to continue even as his first grader daughter
asks, “Daddy, when are you coming home?”
All this and he was only arriving at Dubuque. But
he rewards us with five whole chapters of travel details.
Downstream of Dubuque I was almost losing
interest for a number of reasons. First, it was getting
outside my geographic area. Second, he seemed to be
losing interest! On the lower river there are fewer
towns, more industry, more barges, and starting in
Chapter 16 he was mostly going it alone. No conversation.
Consequently, however, the downstream portion moves
a lot quicker. Though I guess part of it is the fast
current – he really did make more miles every
But by this time it was too late. I
was going to read the whole thing. Let this be a lesson
to you – I started this library search off looking
for no more than a good pattern for a paddle! Things
can get out of hand pretty quickly for me in a library.
After this point there is only one more
chapter of marital strife, where he returns home to
Illinois to see the young kids and attend to some
business. And after this point he is clearly anxious
to be done traveling. Memphis to the gulf is a blur.
I was thankful. I bet he was too.
So what good did all this nonsense do
him? Well, it must have done something. Shortly after
the trip he agreed to divorce his wife, and located
himself nearby so he could take care of getting the
kids off to school while she commuted to work. Perhaps
a greater indicator is that he was able to meet someone
and fall in love again. So maybe it wasn’t nonsense
For the reader who wants to read about
that healing process, this book is a true gem. It
is honest and unflinching. For the reader looking
for travel details, it is still worth it. Just be
prepared to skim some parts.
Madison, Wisconsin, USA