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Book Analysis of When the Mississippi Ran Backwards by Jay Feldman

Updated on December 27, 2014

There are four different parts to the book, When the Mississippi Ran Backwards, and it is arranged in this way to make sure that the reader is still engaged with the material. The four parts are Portents, Rumblings, Upheaval, and Aftershocks. There are very important things that happen in each of the parts and the separation is beneficial because it describes each of the important events that happened in this time period. It then connects all of the events together towards the end of the book. The story about New Madrid explores much more than just earthquakes. It explores and examines the events of what is going on in the lives of people that lived in that area and how the earthquake affected them. There is some seismology that is explained by Feldman as he explains what happens in the area of New Madrid, but it mostly focuses on the stories of the people who were affected by the earthquakes. The earthquakes began on December 16, 1811, and then ended on a day in April of 1812. These earthquakes were extremely powerful and they were felt from thousands of miles away. There were many areas where people lived that were completely destroyed in the earthquakes. Some of the land was completely destroyed in the area of the earthquakes. In fact, after the earthquakes there were parts of the landscape that were completely absent from the area that people once knew.

Beyond the earthquakes, the Americans continued to try to increase their land ownership in North America. This was seen as a threat to the Native Americans, the British, and the Spanish. These people were not happy with the Americans, and between the earthquakes they would try to do everything that they could in order to stop their progression of land ownership. One Indian in particular, Tecumseh, was a Shawnee leader who wanted the Indian tribes to join forces with the British so that they could fight against the United States. Tecumseh’s brother did not want to join forces with him. Tecumseh was very angry and told him that he will go to Detroit and stomp his foot on the ground in order to create destruction. During the time that Tecumseh arrived at Detroit there was a major earthquake that happened. His brother thought that it was a sign from the “Great Spirit” that he should join forces with his brother and the British to fight against the United States. So Tecumseh’s brother joined in the fight against the United States.

The majority of the book focuses on a town called New Madrid. The town was founded by George Mason, who went west to gain land to increase his wealth. There was another man, James Wilkinson, who moved west to try to do the same thing that Mason was doing. He basically wanted to be Mason’s rival in business. He wanted to be a competitor to Mason because he wanted in on some of the money that was being made in the west. Unfortunately, all of the fruits of their labor, including the town of New Madrid, was destroyed in the earthquakes. Nicholas Roosevelt is also mentioned around this point in the book. He was Theodore Roosevelt’s uncle and he, Fulton, and a group of other engineers successfully built the first steamboat to travel on the Mississippi river called ‘New Orleans’. Many believed that the steamboat would not stay afloat, but it did and once people saw that it was a safe mode of transportation it became very popular. Nicholas definitely believed that the steamboat was safe because he brought his pregnant wife and daughter onto the ship with him for the maiden voyage of the New Orleans.

Another aspect of society that was altered during the course of the earthquakes was the amount of people that went to church. Many people believed that the earthquakes were a form of punishment from God because He was angry with the way that they were living. A large amount of people joined churches in a very short amount of time because they wanted to make sure that they were right with God so that he would stop punishing them. After the earthquakes were over people began to leave the church in about the same pace that they joined the church. It was a very rapid increase in the number of people in church and a very rapid decrease in the amount of people that continued to attend that church.

Feldman illustrates many different events that occurred throughout American history and the book also illustrates how each one of the events shaped the culture at the time. Every one of the stories is centered around the earthquakes though and how it altered the geological terrain to make the great Mississippi river run backwards. The same area where the earthquake originated still poses a risk of having another earthquake, but thankfully one has not occurred since then. There has never been an earthquake like it since then, and thanks to the devastation of the earthquake, seismology really began to become an important science because the need was created to register the magnitude of the earthquakes and also to determine that exact location that will be affected by the earthquake. The Richter scale would eventually be developed as well because the earthquakes showed that there was a true need for better understanding the origins, magnitude and cause of them. If the earthquakes were not studied then the people would not be as prepared as they should or could be.

Even though the earthquakes were devastating to the land and the people it forced the people to put aside their differences and unify with one another. This was especially evident when the Native Americans, the British, and the Spanish became very unhappy with the United State’s actions. The citizens of the United States had a large amount of differences and disagreements, but they did unite to rebuild societies after the earthquakes ushered in its destruction. It was terrible what happened during that time period, but I believe that it made the American nation stronger than before. We learned to put aside our differences and focus on what really mattered to every citizen in society. What really mattered was the promotion of the common good for every individual in the nation and in the generations to come.


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