The worst natural disaster in U.S. history, the Mississippi River flood of 1927, which killed more than 1000 people and left 900,000 homeless from Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans, had a far-reaching impact on American society, as revealed in this gripping grassroots epic, redolent with gothic passions of the Old South. The flood shattered the myth of a quasifeudal bond between Delta blacks and the Southern aristocracy. African American flood victims were the principal occupants of squalid Red Cross refugee camps rife with profiteering, pellagra and murders and beatings of blacks by white policemen and civilians. Barry reports that black refugees were given just enough food to avoid starvation, were denied federal reparation through legalistic maneuvers and were compelled by gun-wielding National Guardsmen to work on dangerous levees. The flood triggered an exodus of Southern blacks to Chicago and Los Angeles, among other cities. The cataclysm also marked a watershed, the author persuasively argues, because although the Coolidge administration did virtually nothing to help flood victims recover economically, a public outcry shifted U.S. opinion toward favoring a more activist federal government. The flood made Herbert Hoover, Coolidge's commerce secretary, a national hero, solidifying his presidential ambitions after he headed a special federal rescue effort to handle the emergency. An extraordinary tale of greed, power politics, racial conflict and bureaucratic incompetence, Barry's saga begins in the 1870s as two influential engineers‘James Eads, who built a Mississippi-spanning bridge in St. Louis, and army surveyor Andrew Humphreys‘battle over how to contain the wild, erratic river. The focus then shifts to Mississippi's powerful Percy family‘to railroad magnate W.A. Percy, pioneer of the sharecropping system; to his son LeRoy, banker, plantation owner, senator, who protected blacks against demagogues and the Ku Klux Klan; to poet and lawyer Will (LeRoy's son), ineffectual head of a flood relief committee; and to novelist Walker Percy, Will's blood cousin and adopted son. A cast of power-hungry villains and crusading reformist heroes rounds out this momentous chronicle, which revises our understanding of the shaping of modern America. Photos. BOMC and History Book Club alternate. (Apr.)
Journalist Barry (The Transformed Cell, LJ 9/1/92) considers the consequences of our greatest natural disaster, leaving 1000 dead and 30 feet of water over land from Missouri to the sea. A 14-city author tour includes several spots in the flood zone.
T.H. Watkins The New York Times Book Review Extraordinary...Rising Tide stands not only as a powerful story of disaster but as an accomplished and important social history, magisterial in its scope and fiercely dedicated to unearthing truth.