In "Wicked River," Sandlin transports readers back to a renegade time on the Mississippi, a rollicking ride full of marauders, floating brothels and rough characters spit straight from the pen of Twain himself. Sandlin's own prose style is a fluvial joy, conjuring early-19th-century Mississippi voyageurs, red-shirted wayfarers who bartered, bought and stole goods Up North that they transported downstream in primitive skiffs and flat-bottomed boats. "Most nights, the only lights the voyageurs saw were the moon and the stars -- and the stars weren't the meager scattering of pockmarks we now think of as the constellations, but the Milky Way in full flood, veil after jeweled veil, reaching down to the treetops and shimmering on the wrinkled surface of the river."

Life along the river was always perilous, but especially when an outbreak of "Yellow Jack" was ripe, despite home remedies such as a "big jolt of rye whiskey just before bedtime."

As Sandlin's sumptuous writing steers in the direction of Civil War days, the river that Lincoln called the "Father of Waters" played a decisive role in the Federal victory. In Vicksburg, the Confederates set the banks of the river alight with fire, having "prepared for an assault on the riverfront by positioning along the full length of the levee rows of barrels of tar and pitch, interspersed with huge stacks of cotton bales soaked in oil." Sandlin carries readers all the way through steamboat days and maritime wrecks, all offering an engaging portrait of what some still call the "wicked river."