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Life Between the Levees - America’s Riverboat Pilots

Life Between the Levees

America’s Riverboat Pilots

By Melody Golding
Hardcover : 9781496822840, 344 pages, 130 color photographs, 1 map, April 2019

An incomparable oral history of riverboat pilots on the Mississippi River, its tributaries, and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterways


Winner of the Donald T. Wright Award from the the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library, a special collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library

Life Between the Levees is a chronicle of first-person reflections and folklore from pilots who have dedicated their lives to the river. The stories are as diverse as the storytellers themselves, and the volume is full of drama, suspense, and a way of life a “landlubber” could never imagine. Although waterways and ports in the Mississippi corridor move billions of dollars of products throughout the US and foreign markets, in today's world those who live and work on land have little knowledge of the river and the people who work there.

In ten years of interviewing, Melody Golding collected over one hundred personal narratives from men and women who worked and lived on “brown water,” our inland waterways. As photographer, she has taken thousands of photos, of which 130 are included, of the people and boats, and the rivers where they spend their time.

The book spans generations of river life—the oldest pilot was born in 1917 and the youngest in 1987—and includes stories from the 1920s to today. The stories begin with the pilots who were “broke in” by early steamboat pilots who were on the river as far back as the late 1800s. The early pilots in this book witnessed the transition from steamboat to diesel boat, while the youngest grew up in the era of GPS and twenty-first-century technology. Among many topics, the pilots reflect movingly on the time spent away from home because of their career, a universal reality for all mariners. As many pilots say when they talk about the river, “I hate her when I’m with her, and I miss her when I’m gone.”


"The personalities and their memories as memorialized by Golding are as diverse, spirited, and strong as the currents within the Mississippi River"

- Scott Naugle, French Quarter Journal

"This book will take you on a journey that only a few have been on."

- Bianca Bordelon, Wildlife Mississippi

"Melody Golding’s Life Between the Levees is as pure a slice of Americana as you’ll find anywhere. Gathering generations of river men and women, Golding lets each tell their own stories, opening a window into the hidden world of the riverboat pilot. The constant thread here is change, painted in words by hardworking people—most of them southerners—who humbly keep the world fed and powered. You’ll never look down from a high bridge onto a string of barges in ignorance again. Read and enjoy!"

- Greg Iles

"In Life Between the Levees, author Melody Golding makes a significant contribution to the public’s understanding of the towboat and riverboat industries on the Mississippi and tributary rivers. The collection of interviews with men and women who have made careers on board these vessels reveals a courageous and adventurous way of life unknown to most Americans. The oral histories also document the changes in river navigation, from traditional skills dating back to Mark Twain’s generation to twenty-first-century GPS navigational charting."

- James F. Barnett Jr., author of Beyond Control: The Mississippi River’s New Channel to the Gulf of Mexico