River Queens

Alexander Watson (2018), Orange Frazer Press

I didn’t want this book to end, so I read it a second time. It took me into a world that I have never encountered, the world of river boating. The technicalities of repairing an old but beautifully built wooden boat and getting every last little part of its machinery functioning perfectly were described in just enough detail to give a sense of the complexity of the undertaking, but not so much as to grow tedious. The life of the story, though, is in the encounters with people on or near the rivers between Lake Texoma—on the Texas/Oklahoma border—and Cincinnati: the Arkansas, the Tennessee, and the Ohio. (A map of the route is helpfully located on the inside cover and flyleaf, both front and back; I found myself turning to it often).

My primary reservation has to do with the choice of title. The author and his partner are a committed gay couple, but in no way exhibit the flamboyance associated with the term “queen” in the gay community. They prepare their boat and set out on their adventure as any two close friends might do, and explicit references to, for example, being in the same bed don’t even appear until near the end (pp. 226, 254). That one can use the term to tease the other, lovingly (p. 45) is much the same as the current convention that only African Americans can use the word nigger to or about each other. Similarly, only a gay man can call another a queen, whether in jest or not. And in fact, it doesn’t even matter, in the sense that the sexual behavior of this couple is irrelevant to the story. So to elevate the term by using it in the title is unnecessarily distracting.  

A secondary reservation has to do with lack of clarity about when and why the two decided to settle in Cincinnati (p. 283, “…opportunity to investigate our new hometown”.) This, however, is probably my fault: reading so avidly, I must have missed it. 

Among the many gifts offered by this book are the insights into the concerns and attitudes of people whom many—possibly most—of us would never encounter. Their humanity shines through; and with it, a good deal of humor as well. The book is not overtly political, but it does gently buff the rough corners off the “us vs them” polarization that has become such a nasty feature of our country. In doing so, it leaves the reader with some hope. 

All in all, a well-told chronicle of an unusual adventure; very much recommended.        B. Tye