Jerry M. Hay. Rivers Revealed: Rediscovering America’s Waterways. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Pp. ix + 308, photographs, index. $19.95 paper.
It is clear in reading Rivers Revealed that Jerry M. Hay is more than just knowledgeable about the rivers running through America’s heartland. Hay has made these rivers his life and has concerned himself not only with understanding the vessels that operate on them but also with their anatomy and how they flow and grow during their most peaceful of times and their most dangerous. Each chapter is a narrative about his experiences on the river, starting out with a story of him as a 15-year-old boy in a johnboat following a group of canoeists down the river for a multi-day 200-mile trip. The rest of the stories stem from this one, recounting the experiences of the wide-eyed 15-year-old as he ages and navigates the entire Wabash River, makes his own boat, rides on a towboat, and works for the Delta Queen Steamboat Company as a riverlorian on two of the most romanticized riverboats in the country: the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen, which have since been retired, no longer to be seen traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
Many of the other chapters in Hay’s book don’t simply tell a story, but teach some valuable lessons about the river. He instructs his readers about levees and dams and the dangers surrounding them, how these shape the routes of major rivers in both positive and negative ways. He also explains some of the folklore of river life, highlighting stories of exceptionally interesting or famous riverboat passengers, which vessels have the right of way on the river, on which side to pass other boats, and even how Samuel Clemens’ pen-name Mark Twain means 12 feet of water in river talk. Other chapters also focus on river history and tourism based on river life.
In addition to these stories, Rivers Revealed also acts as a guidebook for how to navigate rivers. Hay is concerned that boaters who get out on the river don’t know the quirks of the rivers and has dedicated much of his time to documenting the Wabash River mile by mile for those interested in traveling along it.
Jerry M. Hay, while not theoretical on his subject, contributes to the study of folklore by using his experiences on the river to provide insight into a world not many of us often see. His research is quite refreshing, straightforward, informative, and entertaining. The excerpts of the journals he kept while traveling provide details and insight that demonstrates the importance of keeping great field notes. Hay proves that, with dedication, experience, and desire, anyone can be a folklorist. Not everything can be learned from books and Hay proves that by doing.