The River Gypsies

For any story you can write, there’s someone who’s lived it. I’m convinced of that. While writing Before We Were Yours, I often felt that I was inventing Rill’s world onboard the family’s tiny shantyboat, the Arcadia. You see, not that much had been written about shantyboat people, or if much had been written it hadn’t survived the long years since the once-vibrant shantyboat culture faded from America’s rivers. I read Harlan Hubbard’s writings on his experiences, building a shantyboat with his wife and taking to the river. But his travels were post World War II, a far different time than Rill Foss’s Depression-era family would have experienced.

Even so, the Arcadia came to life in my mind, with its covered front porch and wrap-around deck. I smelled the little coal stove that drove winter’s chill from the cabin, felt morning fog creeping ghostlike through rusted window screens, heard river kids counting lightning bugs flickering at dusk.

In my mind, Rill called herself a river gypsy. It seemed like a logical term for those who lived the drifter’s life of winds and currents.

Long after the novel was finished, I stumbled across these few paragraphs from an 1895 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  Only the first page of the article has survived—that anyone knows of, anyway. This treasure from over a century ago is safely enshrined in the Dave Thomson Collection. He was kind enough to let me share it with you here.

The writer’s words describe exactly the world Rill took me to when she came to life in my mind. Looking at the photos was like looking through her eyes. If you’ve read Before We Were Yours, perhaps you’ll recognize this world too.


by Charles Buxton Going.

1895 Harpers Weekly (page 231)

Beginning of an article by Charles Buxton Going

Between high and low water, mark of the Western rivers—and that means a wide range in those erratic streams— is a stretch which might well be termed ” No Man’s Land.” For months in winter and spring it is, indeed, no land at all, for the boiling yellow waters roll over it; as they fall, foot by foot the slope of oozy clay appears, bristling here and there with a stubble of naked willow shoots, and littered with.drift left by the receding current.

The water has hardly fallen away, however, before little green things begin to come up; first, cockle-burs, ragweed and water-hemp, then bur-marigolds and morning-glories; followed by wild sunflowers, which nod in the river winds, and fling out their long yellow-rays with all the grace of golden lilies; finally, if the season be long enough, these give way to a wealth of brisk little asters. All enjoy their life estate; if the river remain low, but all are regarded by the capricious stream as mere squatters, to be driven out at will, and its notice of ejectment is a summary drowning.

Nature takes the chances of such a residence freely, but man will generally hesitate, and the more substantial his interests, the less he will entrust them upon so uncertain a tenure; yet the river-bank has its human fauna as characteristic as its flora.

These are the shanty-boat people, the gypsies of the river, and if their domain be limited literally to the river “bottoms,” it extends in length from the Gulf to headwaters, where the shallow stream ripples over its rocky floor. Hidden from their fellow-men by the edge of the steep bank, out of sight and out of mind of the busy world above, they drift silently from town to town and slip irresponsibly from State to State . . .

The gypsies of the river. Yes, they were. They really were.

For every story you can imagine, there’s someone who’s lived it. I’m convinced.

— Lisa

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(Thank you to The Dave Thomson Collection for letting me share this treasure and to and for lovingly preserving the history of the river.)