The River Queen

The River Queen


2007, Hardcover, 288 pp., Holt

The River Queen is my new favorite book. I wish I’d been the one to write something so flawless, so honest and so resonant.”
– Jodi Picoult, author of My Sister’s Keeper

In the fall of 2005 Mary Morris hired two river pilots named Tom and Jerry to take her down the Mississippi. In this hilarious account Morris who has never been on a houseboat before sails with two strangers for over eight hundred miles. They encounter terrible storms and searing heat, a cast of weird and memorable characters, and form a touching bond that continues to this day.


It’s four in the morning and I’m sitting upright in bed. I’ve been awakened by a fork of lightning that illumines the sky; thunder rattles the boat. I’m lying on top of my sleeping bag in a nook near the engines and next to the head. The bed is on wheels and, as water strikes the hull, it rolls into the wall, then bangs back into the nook. I was hoping that by September I’d feel a hint of fall. But it’s pouring out and hot and muggy on board. My clothes, the sleeping bag, everything is damp.

My river pilot, Jerry, who has gone to his other houseboat for the night, says I’m safe unless there’s an electric storm – which there is. I’ve got my river planner open to the page that reads: “Lightning: Not the Type of Electricity to Mess With.” I read a brief description of something called a dielectric breakdown and a tale of an exploding boat. The advice under these circumstances is quite specific. Get off the river. But I’ve got no where to go.

I am in a place called Richmond Bay at a marina, located on the Black River. Four miles downstream the Black merges with the Mississippi. There is an Ojibwa saying: At the place where the three rivers meet, there will be no wind. That place is LaCrosse, Wisconsin where this marina is located. According to the Ojibwa, there will never be a tornado in LaCrosse and there never has been.

But there is a great deal of lightning and thunder. And there’s also a deluge. In the heaviness of the air mosquitos buzz. In the morning we are supposed to sail down the Mississippi on this houseboat. But when I arrived last night from New York, where I live, it was obvious that a good deal remained to be done. We have no running water. No electricity. The refrigerator isn’t hooked up. Neither is the stove.

There are no screens on the windows. If I crack one, the cabin fills with bugs. Our marine toilet lies in pieces on the bathroom floor, along with the instructions for assembly which I have briefly perused. I’m not sure what else we don’t have, but I believe there is an issue with the starboard engine.

The drugs I’ve been taking these past few months for sleep and anxiety have worn off. Since my father’s death last May, I’ve awakened in the night, short of breath, as if someone is chasing me. Now it is the storm that frightens me. I hear strange noises – footsteps, and I think voices. Maybe it’s a radio. Someone or something runs along the pier.

In the shower stall, which is being used for storage, there’s an axe and baseball bat which Jerry showed me before he and Tom, our mechanic, left for the night. For now I’m alone as bolts shoot from the sky and waves slap the hull. My bed rolls as other houseboats clang into the dock.

In the flashes of light I see a mist rising, blending with the fog and rain into a gray soup. An electric palm tree, which marks this harbor, glows green in the night. There’s a gun on board, but Jerry didn’t say where.