The best books about the Mississippi River

6 authors have picked their favorite books about the Mississippi River and why they recommend each book.

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Old Glory

By Jonathan Raban,

Book cover of Old Glory: An American Voyage

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see deeper into a country. Raban was a respected English novelist and critic when he moved to the USA and settled there – something I would later do myself. He proceeded to produce a series of brilliantly vivid travel books about his new homeland, of which this was the first. Avoiding the inevitable road trip (though he did those later), he takes a motorboat for a solo journey down the Mississippi River. Long periods alone allow him the chance to reflect on the river, nature, and the USA, but he also has lively encounters with the people who live by the river, revealing their passions and their pains.

Old Glory

By Jonathan Raban,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Old Glory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Jonathan Raban is one of the world's greatest living travel writers.' William Dalrymple

'The best book of travel ever written by an Englishman about the United States' Jan Morris, Independent

Navigating the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans, Raban opens himself to experience the river in all her turbulent and unpredictable old glory. Going wherever the current takes him, he joins a coon-hunt in Savana, falls for a girl in St Louis, worships with black Baptists in Memphis, hangs out with the housewives of Pemiscot and the hog-king of Dubuque. Through tears of laughter, we are led into the…


Who am I?

I always wanted to be a writer but never thought I’d become a travel writer. And like many British teenagers, I also had a passion for the USA – its movies, its music, its writers – but never imagined I would end up living in Arizona. I’ve now traveled in the US widely and understand why its landscapes, its people, and its culture have produced so much good travel writing. It’s a country that’s inspiring and surprising in equal measure, ever-changing, vast, and even though I didn’t grow up there it certainly made me who I am. 


I wrote...

Snakes Alive and Other Travel Writing

By Mike Gerrard,

Book cover of Snakes Alive and Other Travel Writing

What is my book about?

Mike Gerrard's travel writing has won awards in the UK and USA and has been published in The Times, Time Out, The Washington Post, Wanderlust, The Independent on Sunday, The Express, The Sydney Sun-Herald, The Guardian, and many other publications.

In this collection of his best travel writing, his pieces include vivid accounts of eating snake in China, taking a taxi ride through troubled Belfast, camel-trekking in the Sinai Desert, canoeing in Venezuela's Orinoco Delta, dodging orangutan dung in Sumatra, and visiting a country that doesn’t exist. 

Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley

By Ephraim G. Squier, Edwin H. Davis,

Book cover of Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley

This is another classic, chock full of archaeological descriptions, along with prints of early mounds and artifacts. It’s prime source material, with first-person accounts of those who first discovered and excavated the mounds. Originally published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1848 it remains an important reference on the mounds, a veritable time capsule of maps, illustrations, and accounts of early explorers.

Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley

By Ephraim G. Squier, Edwin H. Davis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

To me, it seemed the ancient mounds were fertile ground for literary exploration, a living metaphor – evidence of what was likely the first places of spiritual practice in our country, ancient, unknown, and buried, what a symbol to form the basis of a novel! When I began my research, I soon came into contact with the Natchez. I attended their annual gathering and eventually became close friends with the Principal Chief of the Natchez Nation, who vetted Sacred Mounds and wrote its foreword. The book includes historical figures like the Great Sun, descended from the Sun Itself, and his war chief, the Tattooed Serpent. They are part of the tapestry of history woven in Sacred Mounds.


I wrote...

Sacred Mounds

By Jim Metzner,

Book cover of Sacred Mounds

What is my book about?

A First Nation visitor from the past visits our time to save our world, helped by the mysterious presence of the ancient mounds. A flat-out adventure story, the novel nevertheless offers clues that the mounds may be as important today as when they were first constructed. A finalist in Screenwriter's Cinematic Book Competition – with a foreword by the Principal Chief of the Natchez Nation.

The USS Carondelet

By Myron J. Smith Jr.,

Book cover of The USS Carondelet: A Civil War Ironclad on Western Waters

“The cruise of a ship is a biography,” wrote Raphael Semmes about his ocean-straddling tall ship, CSS Alabama. “The ship becomes a personification. She not only, ‘walks the waters like a thing of life,’ but she speaks in moving accents to those capable of interpreting her.” In this excellent biography of Carondelet’s career, a squat, ugly, ironclad gunboat also becomes a major character along with the men who designed and built the revolutionary vessel, stoked her engines, and fired her big guns. In tactics and technology, riverine warfare was invented from scratch and indispensable to victory. This work (and Smith’s entire series on brown water war vessels) provides fresh and enlightening perspectives on every major battle down the Mississippi from Forts Henry and Donelson through Vicksburg to Red River.

The USS Carondelet

By Myron J. Smith Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The USS Carondelet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The USS Carondelet had a revolutionary ship design and was the most active of all the Union's Civil War river ironclads. From Fort Henry through the siege of Vicksburg and from the Red River campaign through the Battle of Nashville, the gunboat was prominent in war legend and literature. This history draws on the letters of Ensign Scott Dyer Jordan and Rear Adm. It falls in the category of Henry Walke's memoirs.

Who am I?

I’m a lover of the sea, ships, seamen, and their histories, particularly of navies in the Civil War. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy (1967) with a history major, I served twenty years as a surface warfare officer (ship driver) on most oceans in ships ranging from destroyer to aircraft carrier and with river forces in Vietnam. I earned an M.A. in Political Science and an M.S. in Information Systems Management. Now as a historian, author, and speaker, I’m committed to communicating our naval heritage in an educational and entertaining manner for old hands and new generations. Writing about ships is the next best thing to driving them.


I wrote...

Unlike Anything That Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862

By Dwight Sturtevant Hughes,

Book cover of Unlike Anything That Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862

What is my book about?

“Ironclad against ironclad, we maneuvered about the bay here and went at each other with mutual fierceness,” reported a U.S. Navy officer following that momentous engagement. Monitor redefined the relationship between men and machines in war while the Virginia (ex USS Merrimack) imperiled the Union. Metal monstrosities pounded away for hours with little damage to either. Who won is still debated.

From flaming, bloody decks of sinking warships, to the dim confines of the first rotating armored turret and the smoky depths of a Confederate gundeck—with shells screaming, clanging, booming, and splashing all around—to the office of a worried president with his cabinet peering down the Potomac for a Rebel behemoth, the drama unfolds through accounts of those who lived it.

Lincoln in New Orleans

By Richard Campanella,

Book cover of Lincoln in New Orleans: The 1828-1831 Flatboat Voyages and Their Place in History

As a teenager, Abraham Lincoln built a flatboat and floated down the Mississippi to New Orleans to sell the produce his family and neighbors had grown. This and a similar trip three years later were his only exposure to the Deep South. They immersed him in a culture of riverboat men that was archetypical of the era and included events that became part of the mythology surrounding him, an attack by runaway slaves that could have killed him, and his rescue of fellow boatman from drowning. Campanella is a university professor, tireless researcher, and excellent writer.

Lincoln in New Orleans

By Richard Campanella,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lincoln in New Orleans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

By chance, I was entrusted with rare historical documents about the immigrant generations in our family, which inspired this novel and grounded it in reality. Who wouldn’t wonder why they came? Besides, I have always been fascinated by pre-modern times and how steam power changed everything and dragged us along, kicking and screaming. And, even though they arrived in America in 1836, I grew up on the farm where they lived, so I heard tales of their amazing journey. It may be 186 years on, but it’s time to tell their story, which, it turns out, is a story for us all.  


I wrote...

1836: Year of Escape

By Rose Osterman Kleidon,

Book cover of 1836: Year of Escape

What is my book about?

In 1836, Europe is haunted by the Napoleonic Wars, and battle-weary veterans get the worst of it. Reactionary rulers everywhere try to snuff out the very idea of freedom...and those who treasure it. One man, Niklas Kästner, knows they must go. But he and his mercurial Katrina must somehow make the journey safe for the whole family, including children. To reach the sea, to find a ship, to survive the voyage.1836: Year of Escape is one story among many of the great European immigration, what drove those immigrants, the chances they took, and the lives at stake.

Book cover of France and England in North America

When the deities dedicated to the history of the French and Indian War got together to recommend their own list of the best books on the war that made America, they made Francis Parkman’s multi-volume work required reading. And the good news is that even if they had not, it is worth diving into headfirst.

The French and Indian War is often overshadowed by the American and then French Revolutions that followed on its heels. Yet, neither of them would have ever happened without the completely lopsided British victory in the first. Parkman, writing in the Nineteenth Century, was among the first scholars to shed light on the immense impact wrought by the fight for control over North America in the 1750s. His work is massive as it digs into the very origins of both countries’ humble beginnings and rapid growth in the New World. But fear not! If his…

France and England in North America

By Francis Parkman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked France and England in North America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This Library of America volume, along with its companion, presents, for the first time in compact form, all seven titles of Francis Parkman’s monumental account of France and England’s imperial struggle for dominance on the North American continent. Deservedly compared as a literary achievement to Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Parkman’s accomplishment is hardly less awesome than the explorations and adventures he so vividly describes.

Pioneers of France in the New World (1865) begins with the early and tragic settlement of the French Huguenots in Florida, then shifts to the northern reaches of the continent and…

Who am I?

Jason has written over twenty historical novels on topics ranging from the Roman Empire to the Islamic invasion of Spain and to the spread of the Viking Age into North America. His latest series, The Long Fuse, follows a young man as he navigates the deadly conflicts of the French & Indian War and the Revolutionary War in Eighteenth-Century America.


I wrote...

Quaker's War

By Jason Born,

Book cover of Quaker's War

What is my book about?

Quaker’s War is the first thrilling episode of Jason Born’s latest series, The Long Fuse, which pits the fate of empire against the hearts of men. He breathes fresh life into familiar characters while introducing a host of new actors, both dear and detested.

Rising Tide

By John M. Barry,

Book cover of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America

In 1927, biblical rains caused the levees that line the banks of the Mississippi River to collapse. The floodwaters covered an area about the size of New England, killed more than one thousand people, and left three-quarters of a million residents without food, water, or work. The Great Mississippi Flood was one of the worst natural disasters in American history. It laid bare the deep inequities in American society, which left Black families stranded without drinking water or food while rescuers hauled white families to safety. The flood changed America’s relationship with water forever. Offering a gripping account of the flooding and its lasting impacts, this New York Times bestseller serves as a warning of the harm that results from a lack of preparedness.

Rising Tide

By John M. Barry,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Rising Tide as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award and the Lillian Smith Award.

An American epic of science, politics, race, honor, high society, and the Mississippi River, Rising Tide tells the riveting and nearly forgotten story of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The river inundated the homes of almost one million people, helped elect Huey Long governor and made Herbert Hoover president, drove hundreds of thousands of African Americans north, and transformed American society and politics forever.

The flood brought with it a human storm: white and black collided, honor…

Who am I?

I am a former white-collar crime federal prosecutor and California state court judge turned policymaker and author. Though I started in law, I joined the Department of Homeland Security mid-career where I ended up with an assignment that no one wanted: create the department’s first-ever climate adaptation plan. That experience showed me that climate change is a mounting risk affecting everything. I then joined President Barack Obama’s climate team in the White House, where I crafted policy to address catastrophic risks, including climate change and biological threats. Since then, I have become an author, media pundit, and frequent podcast guest, using my voice to call for action on climate.


I wrote...

The Fight for Climate After Covid-19

By Alice C. Hill,

Book cover of The Fight for Climate After Covid-19

What is my book about?

The Fight for Climate After COVID-19 draws on the troubled and uneven COVID-19 experience to illustrate the critical need to ramp up resilience rapidly and effectively on a global scale. Drawing on my years of working alongside public health and resilience experts crafting policy to build both pandemic and climate change preparedness, I expose parallels between the underutilized measures that governments should have taken to contain the spread of COVID-19—such as early action, cross-border planning, and bolstering emergency preparedness—and the steps leaders can take now to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The Great Plains

By Walter Prescott Webb,

Book cover of The Great Plains

Originally published in 1932, this remains one of the most accessible and thought-provoking books ever written about the American West. Webb’s work rises to the level of literature, especially when describing early encounters by white Americans with the landscape and native people they met west of the 98th meridian. Few writers have captured so vividly the expansion of America from the humid and forested east to the arid west of the Great Plains. Some of Webb’s conclusions may feel a little dated, but this remains a very compelling and rewarding book.

The Great Plains

By Walter Prescott Webb,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Great Plains as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This classic description of the interaction between the vast central plains of America and the people who lived there has, since its first publication in 1931, been one of the most influential, widely known, and controversial works in western history. Arguing that "the Great Plains environment. . .constitutes a geographic unity whose influences have been so powerful as to put a characteristic mark upon everything that survives within its borders," Webb singles out the revolver, barbed wire, and the windmill as evidence of the new phase of civilization required for settlement of that arid, treeless region. Webb draws on history,…

Who am I?

Jim Rasenberger is a writer and author of four books - Revolver, The Brilliant Disaster; America, 1908, and High SteelHe has contributed to the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Smithsonian, and other publications. A native of Washington, DC, he lives in New York City.


I wrote...

Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America

By Jim Rasenberger,

Book cover of Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America

What is my book about?

Revolver is the biography of Sam Colt, inventor of the legendary Colt revolver (a.k.a. six-shooter). Patented in 1836, the Colt was the first practical firearm that could shoot more than one bullet without reloading. Colt’s gun had a profound impact on American history, including industrial, economic, and demographic changes. Most immediately, starting in the 1840s, the revolver spurred white expansion into the American west, where emigrants came to depend on it and Native Americans came to dread it. Revolver is the story of a man and his gun, but it is also a portrait of America at a time of tremendous transformation.

Westward Expansion

By Ray Allen Billington, Martin Ridge,

Book cover of Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier

In Westward Expansion, Ray Allen Billington takes up the story of the American West where Morison left off. This is a sweeping narrative with Billington acting as a travel guide across the successively moving frontiers beyond the Atlantic Coast. He leads us to the crest of the Appalachians, and then over Ohio and down to Tennessee toward the Mississippi. Next, we race to the Pacific and then come back over the Rockies before finally heading onto the Great Plains west of the Mississippi. Yet Westward Expansion is more than a travelogue. In its pages, we travel with everyone who ever lived on these many frontiers: farmers, workers, soldiers, Indians, immigrants, townspeople. The list goes on and on. It’s America’s story with every triumph and tragedy bound up in constant motion. 

Westward Expansion

By Ray Allen Billington, Martin Ridge,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Westward Expansion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When it appeared in 1949, the first edition of Ray Allen Billington's 'Westward Expansion' set a new standard for scholarship in western American history, and the book's reputation among historians, scholars, and students grew through four subsequent editions. This abridgment and revision of Billington and Martin Ridge's fifth edition, with a new introduction and additional scholarship by Ridge, as well as an updated bibliography, focuses on the Trans-Mississippi frontier. Although the text sets out the remarkable story of the American frontier, which became, almost from the beginning, an archetypal narrative of the new American nation's successful expansion, the authors do…

Who am I?

Born and raised in Ohio, the “First West,” I was trained by top historians of the American West at the University of Toledo where I received my doctorate in American History. I’ve worked as a university and research fellow, a writer in the business world, and a professor of history and department chair at Lourdes University. I left my teaching and administrative career to become a full-time writer. Along with Unlikely General, my recent books have included The Other Trail of Tears: The Removal of the Ohio Indians and Interrupted Odyssey: Ulysses S. Grant and the American Indians. Currently, I’m writing a dual biography of William Henry Harrison and Tecumseh.


I wrote...

Unlikely General: Mad Anthony Wayne and the Battle for America

By Mary Stockwell,

Book cover of Unlikely General: Mad Anthony Wayne and the Battle for America

What is my book about?

What made Anthony Wayne an “unlikely general”? He was not President Washington’s first choice to lead an army against the Ohio tribes in 1792. A womanizer, drinker, and spend-thrift, he had just been removed from Congress for voter fraud. Even worse, he had suffered a physical and mental breakdown fighting in Georgia during the Revolution’s final year. But no general was more dedicated to his country or to Washington than Wayne.

Unlikely General follows America’s most scandalous general from the moment Washington appointed him as the army’s commander to his victory over the Indians at Fallen Timbers. The book also describes Wayne’s life through flashbacks that reveal how he gave up his youth, his family and friends, his health and fortune to defend a people who, having forgotten everything he had done for them, remembered him only for his nickname: “Mad Anthony.”

Big Muddy

By Christopher Morris,

Book cover of Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina

Christopher Morris's chronological scope is break-taking, and not all five hundred years of his story deal directly with the hurricanes and other disasters that have routinely afflicted the Lower Mississippi River region. The Big Muddy describes the interplay between humans and the environment, and especially human efforts to engineer the boundaries between wetlands and dry agricultural acreage (first for rice, and later for cotton). After more than a century of hubris-laden and profit-driven tinkering, the Katrina disaster was more or less inevitable—and very much in keeping with the region's tradition of inequitably sharing both the short-term benefits and long-term costs of environmental disruption.

Big Muddy

By Christopher Morris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Big Muddy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Big Muddy, the first long-term environmental history of the Mississippi, Christopher Morris offers a brilliant tour across five centuries as he illuminates the interaction between people and the landscape, from early hunter-gatherer bands to present-day industrial and post-industrial society.

Morris shows that when Hernando de Soto arrived at the lower Mississippi Valley, he found an incredibly vast wetland, forty thousand square miles of some of the richest, wettest land in North America, deposited there by the big muddy river that ran through it. But since then much has changed, for the river and for the surrounding valley. Indeed,…

Who am I?

I am a historian of early America and I teach at George Mason University. What got me interested in disaster history was Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged the Jersey Shore (and New York City) in 2012. Sandy destroyed places I cared about—my childhood rollercoaster plunged into the ocean! As I watched the news obsessively, I saw a pattern that was familiar to me from Katrina and from other recent disasters. Quantitative information—how many lives and dollars lost—and insights from hurricane science came first, followed by human-interest stories, uplifting news of relief and resilience, and (eventually) post-disaster investigations and recriminations. I wanted to understand the roots of this pattern—this "culture of calamity." When did it originate? Where did it come from?


I wrote...

Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood

By Cynthia Kierner,

Book cover of Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood

What is my book about?

Today, when disasters strike, Americans count their losses, search for causes, commiserate with victims, and organize relief efforts. Inventing Disaster explains the origins and development of this predictable, even ritualized, response to calamity, finding its roots in the revolutions in science, information, and emotion that were part of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and America.

Beginning with the famine- and disease-ridden Jamestown colony in 1607 and ending with the deadly Johnstown flood of 1889—and highlighting various fires, epidemics, earthquakes, and steamboat explosions along the way—the book recounts the stories horrific episodes and the resulting efforts to explain, prevent, and relieve these disaster-related tragedies. Although how we interpret and respond to such cataclysmic events has changed in some ways, Inventing Disaster reconstructs the intellectual and cultural history of the twenty-first-century approach to our own seemingly never-ending parade hurricanes, wildfires, and other disasters.

This Tender Land

By William Kent Krueger,

Book cover of This Tender Land

The author, well known for his mysteries, used to write daily from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. at the St. Clair Broiler by our first home in St. Paul. In 2019, he penned a gorgeous narrative chronicling three boys and a sweet young girl named Emma and their 1932 odyssey from an Indian training school breakout down the Mississippi River. Krueger drops readers smack-dab into the Great Depression and a magical trek. It reminds me of Amor Towles' Lincoln Highway but was written first.

This Tender Land

By William Kent Krueger,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked This Tender Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

1932, Minnesota-the Lincoln School is a pitiless place where hundreds of Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. It is also home to an orphan named Odie O'Banion, a lively boy whose exploits earn him the superintendent's wrath. Forced to flee, he and his brother Albert, their best friend Mose, and a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi and a place to call their own.

Over the course of one unforgettable summer, these four orphans will fly into the unknown and cross paths with others…

Who am I?

After more than 30 years in daily journalism in Minnesota, I moved to a trout stream near Durango, Colo., to stage a second act. Editors at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where I worked for 26 years, gave me a freelance contract to write a Minnesota History column every Sunday. It’s morphed into a popular crowd-sourcing of history with readers feeding me delicious family stories. I’m the lucky one who gets to weave these stories—enriching my knowledge of what being Minnesotans is all about.


I wrote...

Minnesota, 1918: When Flu, Fire, and War Ravaged the State

By Curt Brown,

Book cover of Minnesota, 1918: When Flu, Fire, and War Ravaged the State

What is my book about?

In what mushroomed into a unprecedented trifecta of woe, Minnesotans in 1918 faced the state’s deadliest wildfires and a lethal influenza outbreak just as the nation’s first World War erupted. Award-winning Minnesota journalist Curt Brown puts a human face on the dread—braiding the three simultaneous calamities into a gripping read with true accounts impeccably researched from across the state. Published 100 years later in 2018, the book was written in the pre-COVID days but morphed into an especially relevant flashback.

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