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More than 2,300 miles long, draining 31 US states, passing through 10 of them and the cities of St Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, and intrinsically linked to the history of race and civil rights and the story of Blues music, the Mississippi is America’s greatest river. A river cruise – slow, serene, thoughtful – is a supreme way to experience this iconic waterway, and it affords plenty of time to absorb the rich culture and creative arts scenes as well as the landscapes along the banks.
The mighty Mississippi has been a source of inspiration across many art forms and genres; here are seven top reads for downtime on deck or in your cabin.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
This controversial classic is more readable than you might expect and its tales of the riverbank are never less than colourful. Skipping around several states, it uses the river as a source and symbol of escape and adventure, and also as nature’s way out of social injustice. “The river looked miles and miles across," Twain writes. “The moon was so bright I could a counted the drift logs that went a-slipping along, black and still, hundreds of yards out from shore. Everything was dead quiet, and it looked late, and smelt late.”
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Faulkner’s fourth novel, set in Jefferson, Mississippi, was not successful when first published in 1929, owing to its experimental style and interwoven plot lines – the stream-of-consciousness opening, narrated by the mentally afflicted Benjamin 'Benjy' Compson, reflects the wandering way his mind works.
Persevere though, as The Sound and the Fury captures life in the US at a time of great flux and explores themes that make it a seminal read for American literature students – including race, faith, the Southern aristocracy, gender and the collective memory of the American Civil War.
Faulkner’s language is often meanderingly poetic. Is he perhaps riffing on Twain when he writes: “I could smell the curves of the river beyond the dusk and I saw the last light supine and tranquil upon tideflats like pieces of broken mirror, then beyond them lights began in the pale clear air, trembling a little like butterflies hovering a long way off”?
Old Glory by Jonathan Raban
In 1979, Jonathan Raban journeyed down the Mississippi from Minneapolis to New Orleans in a specially equipped 16-foot motorboat. “The book and the journey would be all of a piece,” he writes. “The plot would be written by the current of the river itself. It would carry one into long deep pools of solitude, and into brushes with society on the shore.” Doing it alone, he has plenty of time and peace to reflect on his childhood fascination with the great river, but also mingles engagingly with those who live on its banks – even having a couple of dates with women en route.
A former academic, Raban melds the literary with the laconic like very few travel writers. Old Glory won both the Royal Society of Literature's Heinemann Award and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.
Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
The N’Orleans novels of James Lee Burke bring the Delta story right up to date. Tin Roof Blowdown, published in 2007, features two main characters: one is Burke’s regular hard-boiled anti-hero, detective Dave Robicheaux, who is on finest form as he roams city and hinterland. The other is Hurricane Katrina, which has swept in over the Gulf of Mexico and left in its destructive wake a society on the brink of collapse. Summoned to investigate the shooting of two black looters, Robicheaux takes the lid – or tin roof – off a nest of local vipers, some of whom happen to belong to the highest echelons of Louisiana’s political class. Fast-paced, coolly delivered and dark in places, this is a great one for the sun-lounger.
A Time to Kill by John Grisham
Set in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi in the 1980s, when racism was causing strife across the States, this mega-selling page-turner of a legal thriller name checks all the classic contemporary villains, from bent judges to the Klan to the media circus that descends on the community to report – and misconstrue – the events and facts. Young lawyer Jake Brigance is our only hope. The 1996 film, starring Sandra Bullock and Samuel L Jackson, is an option if you prefer your dramas on the small screen.
Delta Blues by Ted Gioia
Subtitled “The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music” this 2012 volume steers music fans through the storied history of Southern music, from antebellum work songs and the pioneering, prisoners and outcasts who were there at the origins to the likes of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker.
If you’re cruising with your headphones on, even part of the time, this is a very useful, meticulously researched book. Load up your MP3 player with one of the Rough Guide Blues compilations and Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited for a soundtrack to your voyage.
Fevre Dream by George RR Martin
Before he became Lord of the Thrones, Martin wrote numerous novels, novellas and short stories in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. Fevre Xream (1982) is a vampire novel set in antebellum Mississippi; the oddly spelled title is taken from the name of a paddle steamer used by vampire hunters who – guess what – seem never to come out of their cabins during daylight. This is not a derivative Stoker-esque yarn but a full-on fantasy story about alchemy, “bloodmasters” and curing the “red thirst”. All in all, fang-ful fun and ideal as a late-night cabin bedfellow on those stormy nights.