May 26, 2012

Rising Tide

I cannot think of one think John M. Barry could possibly do to improve Rising Tide.  It's probably the best straight history book I've read.

This was a book club pick and this is why book clubs can be so great.  I would have never read this of my own accord but I'm so glad I have now.  It has amazing scope, but never feels bogged down with anything unnecessary.  It also weaves in enough detail and personal stories that the wide scope never feels too distanced.

This is yet another in a long line of books that has "...and how it changed America" in the subtitle, but in this case Barry backs up the claim.  This country before this flood and the same country after this flood are very different places.  Before this flood whites controlled a large, hard-working black population in the south with vast sugar and cotton plantations.  After the flood the great migration took place with a vast exodus of black labor. Before this flood Herbert Hoover was a relatively unknown Secretary of Commerce in the Coolidge administration.  After the flood he won the presidency by a landslide.  Before the flood, New Orleans was a crown jewel of a city with the strongest banking industry in the country.  After the flood, even tough the city was spared, it became a shadow of it's former self.  Though a horse-drawn carriage driver told me on a tour through the city last winter holiday that "faded glory is better than no glory, I suppose."

I once saw a documentary about Mark Twain and in an interview with Russell Banks he said that Mark Twain was our first major writer because he grasped two concepts about this country better than anyone else at the time: race and space.  The troubling friction between blacks and whites and the ways we were coming to grips with this wide open land.  This book nails the importance of both these themes coming to a head in a most dramatic way.

Don't go into this expecting a disaster book, though there's plenty in here about the flood itself.  This starts just after the Civil War and describes two engineers who battle each other for control of the best way to control the river, which has far-reaching impact on the events of 1927.  Then there are other biographical portraits of men whose influence helps or hurts the situation (sometimes at the same time) and how all of these decisions have far-reaching impact on the future of the country from race relations to disaster management.

While nowhere nearly as informative as this book, the Wikipedia page devoted to this disaster has links to actual footage of the flood and it's aftermath at the bottom!