'The River Queen' Travels Down the Mississippi After her father died at the considerable age of 102, Mary Morris set out to reconnect with his early life along the Mississippi River with a riverboat trip through Mark Twain country.

'The River Queen' Travels Down the Mississippi

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Now, from the story of cats and rats, to a story about Tom and Jerry, two river hands who took writer Mary Morris down the Mississippi. After her father, Saul Morris, died at the venerable age of 102, Mary Morris longed to reconnect with him, especially his early life, when he lived for a time on an island in the river, and in Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri.

She asked Tom Hafner and Jerry Nelson to pilot a boat, a River Queen, from Wisconsin to Tennessee. Morris' quest, as Twain put it a century earlier, was to learn the shape of the river and learn more about the shape of her father's life. Her journey, with Tom and Jerry, is chronicled in her new book, "The River Queen."

Mary Morris joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Tom and Jerry called in from the French Island yacht club in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I asked Morris why she thought the journey would bring her closer to her father.

Ms. MARY MORRIS (Author, "The River Queen"): I never really understood him. He was always a bit of a mystery to me. And he was a man who'd lived through the jazz age. He saw the first automobiles, airplanes. I mean, he was, you know, 102 years old. And I think because he was an enigmatic man, I wanted to see what was real. I wanted to, sort of, touch the places that he had touched that were important to him, especially that island.

LYDEN: And he told you about the Mississippi on the last day that he was alive, right?

Ms. MORRIS: The one of the last gestures, the last time I saw him, he could barely speak and he was really almost 103. And I asked him to tell me about the river. I said, dad, tell me some things. And I went out. I had to do some errands. He went to sleep. And when I woke up, there was a scribbled note about how he took a boat back and forth. They rode back and forth to the island in the summer and they sledded in the winter. And that there were cows and there were apple trees. And he was asleep and I was leaving for New York. This was is Wisconsin. I was going back to New York and I kissed him. I took the note. And I never saw him again.

And that note, I think, is part of what shaped the whole journey that I wanted to take. And there's a very moving moment that Jerry who started to try to find this island even though it didn't have a name. And I always appreciated that, Jerry. It always meant a lot to me. And I hope I captured that in the book.

LYDEN: Tom Hafner, when this writer from New York came to you and said she wanted to go down the river and maybe you could teach her a few things, what was your response?

Mr. TOM HAFNER (Boat Owner): Well, yeah. I didn't think it would materialize at first, but, you know, I've been known to be a dreamer. And, you know, when Mary popped on my boat, I could see that she was a dreamer and you had to be to have this kind of idea.

LYDEN: Captain Nelson, were you worried about the tenure of the three of you on deck? Seriously, because you were in very cramped quarters for, you know, day after day.

Captain JERRY NELSON (Boat Captain, River Queen): Well, as long as time was there to keep everybody square, then we were alright.

LYDEN: You had a storm come up just four hours after you left the port in Lacrosse.

Capt. NELSON: Oh yeah. That was a great deal of excitement. I think something I'd never seen before.

Mr. HAFNER: Well, it was a waterspout, if I recall right, where water comes from the river and disappears into the clouds. It's actually like a backwards tornado. And literally sucked water from the Mississippi straight up, and Jerry and I were both, kind of, looking backwards at it, going in, I'm glad it's behind us, you know.

Ms. MORRIS: Well, and I was shouting them. What is there happening(ph)? And Jerry says, get in your hands in these and crawl off the deck. You know, well that didn't reassure me, guys.

Capt. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Mary, what places did you arrive at that made you feel the most connected to your father, to the world that he had known so long ago?

Ms. MORRIS: Certainly Quinsy and Hannibal. My father said that he lived in a house next door to Mark Twain and there was not a house next door to Mark Twain's house. But when I went into the gift shop and I asked about old pictures, they actually had a picture of Mark Twain from 1912 and it showed the house that my father told me he lived in that still existed. And I think that was a moment where I felt really the closest. I felt like the things my father told me were true. And it also - I said goodbye to him after Hannibal. I went to that part of the river with him in my own way and then after that, it was just - I was along for the ride. It was very different.

LYDEN: Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with us today.

Ms. MORRIS: Thank you, Jacki.

Capt. Nelson: Thank you, Jacki.

Mr. HAFNER: Yup.

LYDEN: The book is called "The River Queen," a memoir by writer Mary Morris, and we were joined off today by her pilots, Tom Hafner and Jerry Nelson who spoke to us from La Crosse, Wisconsin.

(Soundbite of music)

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