Book Review  
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 Himself
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 confessor.

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 it.

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 me.

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 Midwest?

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 day.

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 after all.

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.

Rob Rohde-Szudy
Madison, Wisconsin, USA