Up on the River: People and Wildlife of the Upper Mississippi (by John Madson, $20, University of Iowa Press, 2011): Drawing on a lifetime of experience along the banks of the Mississippi, Madson shares a multifaceted and engaging depth of insight about the river's interacting parts. Up on the River shifts between personal and historical anecdotes, conservational concerns, and fish-wrangling trips down the river. From the "civilization" of Harper's Ferry to the decimation of sturgeon and shellfish populations, Madson depicts a river that has changed significantly but not lost its soul. His witty, critical tone colors him a native and true scholar of the river. This reissue is a brisk read despite the specificity of its subject.
Once Upon a River (by Bonnie Jo Campbell, W.W. Norton & Co., $26, 2011): Margo Crane's story is the story of life on Michigan's Stark and Kalamazoo rivers. After a series of violent calamities strip the alluring 16-year-old protagonist of her innocence, she turns to the only thing she can trust: the river. Campbell's portrait of a silent beauty who prefers to see the world through iron sights comes through with blunt prose that suits his resilient characters and stark surroundings. This style is most effective in descriptions of tense moments of survival (much of the novel), with Margo training her .22 on a regal ten-point buck or treading lightly on frost-covered ground. Once Upon a River succeeds thanks to Margo's depth. Like a more seductive Huck Finn, her outward simplicity belies her actual complexity.