Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book review: "Lighting Out for the Territory"

Without the Civil War, we would never have had Mark Twain.

As the year 1861 began, 25-year-old Samuel Clemens was a happy and well-paid Mississippi riverboat pilot. But when war broke out, Clemens, fearing conscription into the army, fled his Missouri home and headed west. It was there that he had the experiences that made him into the writer known as Mark Twain.

"Lighting Out for the Territory" by Roy Morris Jr. is an enjoyable look at this early part of Twain's life.

What I liked most about this 2010 book is how it offers, through Twain's experiences, an up-close look at a unique period in American history.

Morris shows us the life of a 19th century riverboat pilot. He describes the mixture of adventure and discomfort in traveling by stagecoach across the continent. He brings us along with Clemens to the silver mining boomtowns of Nevada, the gold mining camps of California, the booming city of San Francisco and the exotic Hawaiian islands of 1866.  These were all part of Clemens' life, before he was over 30.

Morris does a good job of adding extra details along the way. We learn, for example, that many more people died due to disease while traveling west than to Indian attacks. We see how newspapers of the period had no problem "enhancing" and sometimes, inventing facts to make a story better.

If the book has a weak point, it's that it doesn't build any suspense or drama. Twain's meandering life is interesting, but it would be easy to hit "pause," put the book down and pick it up sometime later.

Morris' writing has a tendency to exceed my vocabulary and maybe yours, too so check out my glossary.

If you like this sort of book, here are three others you might consider

"Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River" by John Kirk Townsend. The diary of a naturalist exploring the west in 1834-1837.

"Undaunted Courage" by Stephen Ambrose. A engaging look at the Lewis and Clark expedition.

"Innocents Abroad."  Twain's book about his 1867 trip to Europe and the Middle East.

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