Book Review: ‘Peep Light’ Details A Career In The Wheelhouse

Ever since Mark Twain, rivers have had a deep connection with the literary life. Nothing can scaffold a novel or film plot like a river journey, as many classic novels and films bear witness. The reckless mission in “The African Queen,” the canoe trip upriver in “Black Robe,” the journey into the heart of darkness in Conrad’s novel and Coppola’s film, the descent into terror in “Deliverance”: are all unforgettable.

Cover of Peep Light by Lee Hendrix.
Cover of Peep Light by Lee Hendrix.

And that’s just fiction. If “river memoir” isn’t a recognized sub-genre of nonfiction literature, it should be. Whether the authors are working pilots like Twain, journalists like John McPhee, canoers making a trip downstream or passengers on paddlewheelers like the Delta Queen, writers seem to derive endless inspiration from rivers and river journeys—especially the “great brown god” of the Mississippi River.

For anyone contemplating a working life on the rivers, I can recommend no better first book than the upcoming “Peep Light: Stories of a Mississippi Riverboat Captain” by Lee Hendrix. Hendrix began working on the Mississippi in 1972 as a deckhand. He became a pilot in 1978 and worked steadily through 1983, when he became an outdoor educator in Europe, then worked for the Student Leadership Environmental Adventure Program in the St. Louis Public Schools system. He never quit the rivers entirely, though, and later continued to work as a captain of passenger vessels and casinos. As Joni Mitchell might say, he’s looked at rivers from both sides now. Waterways Journal readers may have encountered Hendrix’s stories in these pages, as well as in Big River magazine.

In a famous passage in his “Life on the Mississippi,” Mark Twain contrasts his “romantic” view of the Mississippi River as an impressionable young aspiring writer—with its ruffling waters, gorgeous sunsets and endless reaches—with how he saw it later as a working pilot, with all its “romance” stripped away and every feature a clue to ever-present dangers like snags and sandbars.

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Hendrix’s stories and memories fit into the latter view. He doesn’t spare the hair-raising moments of near misses, bridge allisions and the constant awareness of danger. One chapter is titled “Out here, man, a lot of stuff can go wrong.” Hendrix has a special talent for making readers physically feel and hear the tension of a line, the whine and vibration of an engine and all the sounds and clues that pilots and captains have to attend to with an ever-present edge of alertness and anxiety. 

The stories range from personal reflections on aging, experiencing one’s first night on the river, working on the deck, promotion to pilot, the characters working aboard these boats and the history of the river itself. Hendrix began working on the rivers at a time of change and transformation, when regulations began tightening, safety came more to the fore, pay began to improve and river careers began to be professionalized.

One story centers around his forgetting to turn on the transducer that tells channel depth, because it was still new to him. Another is a gripping story about a “ghost towboat” that aids towboat captains in moments of danger—a reminder of the constant anxiety that comes with the responsibility. The old “cowboy days” of cutting safety corners were fading (thankfully), but Hendrix still encountered plenty of colorful river characters with pasts you didn’t ask about and whom you maybe only knew by nicknames.

“Peep Light” should be on the reading list of any river school or program preparing people to work on the rivers. For those readers not anticipating a river career, you’ll just have to be contented with suspenseful, expertly told and entertaining river stories. Hendrix continues to “trip,” and currently works as a “‘riverlorian” or story-teller on the American Queen. If you never get the chance to hear him there, “Peep Light” is the next best thing.

It will be available from the University of Mississippi Press beginning in February 2024; you can get your pre-orders in now. It’s the perfect gift for the towboater in your life—or just someone who loves towboats and rivers.