In my hometown, there is a giant stone levee that keeps the Mississippi River from overflowing. It was built some years after a massive flood in 1965 damaged downtown. So, when there was an even more massive flood in 1993, Clinton stayed dry. It’s an ugly thing, this massive rock strip along the riverbank. But what we lost in aesthetics we gained in peace of mind, I suppose.
Todd Frankel, in Taming the Mighty Mississippi, has set a difficult task for himself: telling a story about a subject as banal as infrastructure, like that levee in my hometown. But his writing – the river is a “powerful beauty” and a “corrosive force” with an “alarming propensity to flood” – combined with beautifully shot video and humanizing audio, compel the reader forward as surely as a tug does a barge.
The expansive overhead shots of different points along the river’s 2,350-mile path on the story’s opening page are overlaid with gentle sounds of trickling water and softly chirping birds. It’s so peaceful it could be used as a sleep aid. But the serenity, you know, will set up the conflict to come. And the perspective, which was shot from hundreds of feet in the air, underscores one of Frankel’s themes: a sense of our hubris in trying to control such a natural wonder.
Frankel’s writing is equally compelling. His initial three graphs are so sharp that each has its own kicker. He takes care to couple this story with a current topic of interest, Trump’s infrastructure plan, to add a dose of timeliness to an otherwise evergreen. And he introduces us to interesting characters as we meander down the Mississippi with him, like the farm family that used the silt left by one flood to build a levee to protect their home from another one.