Summary and book reviews of River Horse by William Least Heat-Moon

River Horse

A Journey Across America

by William Least Heat-Moon

River Horse
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  • First Published:
    Oct 1999, 528 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2001, 528 pages

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Book Summary

The preeminent chronicler of American back roads recounts his singular voyage on American waters from sea to sea.

In River-Horse, the preeminent chronicler of American back roads--who has given us the classics Blue Highways and Prairyerth--recounts his singular voyage on American waters from sea to sea. Along the route, he offers a lyrical and ceaselessly fascinating shipboard perspective on the country's rivers, lakes, canals, and landscapes. Brimming with history, drama, humor, and wisdom, River-Horse belongs in the pantheon of American travel literature.

In his most ambitious journey ever, Heat-Moon sets off aboard a small boat he named Nikawa ("river horse" in Osage) from the Atlantic at New York Harbor in hopes of entering the Pacific near Astoria, Oregon. He and his companion, Pilotis, struggle to cover some five thousand watery miles -- more than any other cross-country river traveler has ever managed -- often following in the wakes of our most famous explorers, from Henry Hudson to Lewis and Clark.

En route, the voyagers confront massive floods, submerged rocks, dangerous weather, and their own doubts about whether they can complete the trip. But the hard days yield up incomparable pleasures: strangers generous with help and eccentric tales, landscapes unchanged since Sacagawea saw them, riverscapes flowing with a lively past, and the growing belief that efforts to protect our lands and waters are beginning to pay off. And, throughout its course, the expedition enjoys coincidences so breathtaking as to suggest the intervention of a divine and witty Providence.

Teeming with humanity and high adventure, Heat-Moon's account is an unsentimental and original arteriogram of our nation at the edge of the millennium. Masterly in its own right, River-Horse, when taken with Blue Highways and PrairyErth, forms the capstone of a peerless and timeless trilogy.

A Celestial Call to Board

For about half a league after we came out of the little harbor on Newark Bay at Elizabeth, New Jersey -- with its strewn alleys and broken buildings, its pervading aura of collapse, where the mayor himself had met us at the dock and stood before a podium his staff fetched up for him to set his speech on, words to launch us on that Earth Day across the continent as he reminded us of history here, of George Washington on nearly the same date being rowed across to New York City on the last leg of his inaugural journey -- and for the half league down the Kill Van Kull (there Henry Hudson lost a sailor to an arrow through the neck), we had to lay in behind a rusting Norwegian freighter heading out to sea with so little cargo that her massive props were no more than half in the water and slapping up a thunderous wake and thrashing such a roil that it sent our little teakettle of a boat rolling fore and aft. I quickly throttled back, and the following sea picked ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

Writing with an eye for local color and little-examined history (and sneaking in a pages-long sentence worthy of James Joyce in the bargain), Least Heat-Moon turns in a stirring narrative of a journey into landscapes few have seen---an America that "isn't a big country but hundreds of smaller ones." Vintage Least Heat-Moon, radiant with intelligence and masterful storytelling.


Booklist

His journey becomes a living history of the U.S. as the well-read author refers to numerous historical events that took place along his route, quoting at length from other writers and adventurers who preceded him. At more than 500 pages, his epic does seem to run long, but the book is composed of self-containing chapters and can be read selectively. There is a timeless quality to Heat-Moon's stories, all remarkably spellbinding and enchanting. An excellent book.

Publishers Weekly

Heat-Moon has written a rich chronicle of a massive and meaningful undertaking. Unlike Blue Highways, however, the focus is not so much on people and places as on the trials of a journey that bypasses them in favor of reaching its destination.

Reader Reviews

Tim Larson

Entertaining and informative, this trial by water gives arm-chair travelers and historians a glimpse of the importance of American rivers. Candid, opionated yet wry, Heat-Moon takes us mile by mile from NYC to the Pacific in his own personal neo Kon-...   Read More

BW

Great book to read when the boating season is over

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