Review of The Mobile River, by John Sledge

22 Sep

Most of the numerous history books I read are informative, many are entertaining, and a relative few are what I would term compellingly written. Those that combine all three of these characteristics are rare indeed, and when they do put all this together they provide rare insight into their topics and become something more than a mere chronicle of events; they define a topic and give it life. Such is the case with John Sledge’s The Mobile River. The book is a beautifully written and sweeping account of an important waterway that ends up providing not just a history of an area but communicates a sense of place for a region.

Mobile River cover08192015

Although the Mobile, a stream which runs through the heart of Delta region emptying the Alabama and Tombigbee River systems into Mobile Bay, is technically one of the state’s shortest rivers, it is clearly one of its most historic. In the pages of the book, Sledge chronicles successive eras of life on the storied river including the experiences of prehistoric Native American societies, colonial era intrigue among the Spanish, French, and British, Civil War exploits, the rise of the steamboat era, the diverse commerce which the river facilitated, and the disasters and triumphs it has witnessed. Sledge is particularly well-qualified for the task of telling the stream’s story, having an intimate knowledge of regional history and being the author of several books on Mobile area history. He also brings a unique flair to writing which he fine-tuned during many years as book review editor for the Mobile Press-Register back in the days when the city had such a thing as an actual printed daily news source.

Two things particularly stood out to me as worth mentioning after reading this book. One is that Sledge has a gift for making historical personalities, even those about whom we only have the most basic information, come to life. From swashbuckling colonial military leaders to hardworking shipyard divers and welders, Sledge imbues the people who he discusses with vibrancy and character. Readers gain a unique insight into the real experiences of sailors, entrepreneurs, engineers, and longshoremen in the pages of this book and a unique understanding of how their brain and brawn helped lay the foundation for a regional culture and economy. Second, Sledge has an uncanny ability to make complex work and technologies understandable on a human scale.  Whether explaining the backbreaking work of stowing hundreds of bales of cotton aboard steamers, the political arguments over the attempts to dredge and direct the river channel, the ingenuity and sweat involved in operating enormous shipbuilding and repair facilities, or the construction of the massive tunnels lying some 65 feet below the water’s surface through which thousands of vehicles travel every day, Sledge moves with dexterity and keeps the narrative engaging.

As Sledge points out in the introduction to the book, he, and countless thousands of other Mobile Bay area residents likely have been beside (along the banks), under (driving through the tunnels), and over (on the bridge) the river, but only a small portion have really been on the river. It is a sharp irony that while Mobile is one of the nation’s top dozen ports, the hustle and bustle of the riverfront takes place almost completely out of sight of the great majority of local residents and its role in shaping its namesake city can easily be overlooked. In the pages of The Mobile River, John Sledge figuratively takes readers down among the stream’s lapping waves and allows us to swim in its current. It is narrative history at its finest, and those who read it cannot ever look at the river the same way again afterwards. It is a wonderful contribution to not only Alabama, but Southern historiography.

JMB

5 Responses to “Review of The Mobile River, by John Sledge”

  1. london glaziers June 7, 2017 at 7:58 PM #

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Review of The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History, by John S. Sledge | The Historians Manifesto - May 26, 2020

    […] master of prose whose several books on regional history have been reviewed previously in the blog (The Mobile River, These Rugged Days, An Ornament to the City, Cities of Silence, The Pillared City) Sledge takes a […]

  2. Review of Jose de Ezpeleta, Gobernador de la Mobila, 1780-1781 by Francisco de Borja Medina Rojas | The Historians Manifesto - August 25, 2020

    […] is the author of The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History, The Mobile River, These Rugged Days: The Civil War in Alabama, An Ornament to the City: Old Mobile Ironwork, Cities […]

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