A Good Book For A Flood

As we were sandbagging at Fort Mandan Friday, on the bank of the Mighty Missouri River, my friend Clay looked over his shoulder at the river and said “Maybe we’ll see a house come floating by.” Which set us both to thinking immediately about Huckleberry Finn, and we were quiet for a good long while as our minds drifted off to Huck and Jim . . .

The river went on raising and raising for ten or twelve days, till at last it was over the banks. The water was three or four feet deep on the island in the low places and on the Illinois bottom. On that side it was a good many miles wide, but on the Missouri side it was the same old distance across—a half a mile—because the Missouri shore was just a wall of high bluffs.

Daytimes we paddled all over the island in the canoe. It was mighty cool and shady in the deep woods, even if the sun was blazing outside. We went winding in and out amongst the trees, and sometimes the vines hung so thick we had to back away and go some other way. Well, on every old broken down tree you could see rabbits and snakes and such things; and when the island had been overflowed a day or two they got so tame, on account of being so hungry, that you could paddle right up and put your hand on them if you wanted to; but not the snakes and turtles—they would slide off in the water . . .

Another night when we was up at the head of the island, just before daylight, here comes a frame-house down, on the west side. She was a two-story, and tilted over considerable. We paddled out and got aboard—clumb in at an upstairs window. But it was too dark to see yet, so we made the canoe fast and set in her to wait for daylight.

(Let’s skip over the dead guy, and move on to the escape from the floating house)

We got an old tin lantern, and a butcher-knife without any handle, and a brand-new Barlow knife worth two bits in any store, and a lot of tallow candles, and a tin candlestick, and a gourd, and a tin cup, and a ratty old bedquilt off the bed, and a reticule with needles and pins and beeswax and buttons and thread and all such truck in it, and a hatchet and some nails, and a fish-line as thick as my little finger with some monstrous hooks on it, and a roll of buckskin, and a leather dog-collar, and a horseshoe, and some vials of medicine that didn’t have no label on them; and just as we was leaving I found a tolerable good currycomb, and Jim he found a  ratty old fiddle-bow, and a wooden leg. The straps was broke off of it, but barring that, it was a good enough leg, though it was too long for me and not long enough for Jim, and we couldn’t find the other one, though we hunted all around.

And so, take it all around, we made a good haul . . . We rummaged the clothes we’d got, and found eight dollars in silver sewed up in the lining of an old blanket overcoat. . .

Well, the days went along, and the river went down between its banks again; and about the first thing we done was to bait one of the big hooks with a skinned rabbit and set it and catch a catfish that was as big as a man, being six foot two inches long, and weighed over two hundred pounds. We couldn’t handle him, of course; he would ‘a’ flung us into Illinois. We just set there and watched him rip and tear around till he drownded. We found a brass button in his stomach, and a round ball, and lots of rubbage. We split the ball open with the hatchet and there was a spool in it. Jim said he’s had it there a long time, to coat it over so and make a ball of it. It was as big a fish as was ever catched in the Mississippi, I reckon. Jim said he hadn’t ever seen a bigger one. He would ‘a’ been worth a good deal over at the village. They peddle out such a fish as that by the pound in the market-house there; everybody buys some of him; his meat’s as white as snow and makes a good fry.

You know the story. Twain’s classic book of books. Huck escapes his Pap, who’s out to spend Huck’s reward money. His friend, the slave, Jim, escapes his owner who is going to sell him down river to New Orleans. They set off on a Mississippi River adventure. It was fun to pull it off the shelf and escape into it this week as the Missouri River rose. It’s my all-time favorite book . The best thing ever written, by, arguably, America‘s greatest writer.


3 thoughts on “A Good Book For A Flood

  1. As an English teacher, I love the reference, but I’m a bit disconcerted to think it might be my house. Let’s hope for the best for all along the Mighty Mo.


  2. Jim, thanks to Jan and BCA, I’ve discovered your blog. I, too, love Huckleberry Finn. Have you seen the musical version, “Big River,” music written by Roger Miller? I saw it on Broadway years ago and enjoyed it. I’m pleased that the Frostfire theater in Walhalla is offering it this summer. I plan to get there. Hi to Lillian!


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