Sailors in the navy who work the engine room have a saying that brims with swagger: There are two types of people onboard ship—engineers and passengers. But anyone who has ever worked below decks knows it’s a humbling job, and certainly not one that many would enjoy, let along dream of: there’s the noise, the smell, the cramped spaces, and in summertime the stifling heat. For a select few, however, the engine room of a ship is where life makes sense; it’s a gloriously loud laboratory where things can definitely go wrong. an engineer has to solve problems quickly or else an expensive piece of machinery might break, or even worse, a shipmate might get hurt. For some, a tiny porthole offers the best view of the water.
In her delightful book My River Chronicles: Rediscovering America on the Hudson, journalist and bona fide engineer Jessica Dulong delivers two coming-of-age stories: one is her own and the other is of the Hudson itself, a waterway that has seen so many changes in the 400 years since its namesake Henry Hudson explored as far as what is now the bluffs of Kinderhook. Both are stories of redemption; Dulong is a young woman who ditches a safe desk job and plunges head-first into a male-dominated world of diesels and generators, while the Hudson is a river that is finally experiencing a cultural and environmental rebirth after years of dumping and neglect.
Dulong, the daughter of an auto mechanic, hints that her interest in becoming one of only a handful of the world’s female fireboat engineers might have been part of an even larger quest; as the author writes, this interest “escalated to obsession, then swelled to encompass the history of the Hudson River, whose industries helped forge the nation. “I’ve since fallen in love with workboats, with engineering, with the Hudson” (7).
The book is more than a simple memoir, however; it’s structured more like a collection of linked essays than a singular narrative, and that flexibility allows Dulong to weave in exciting threads of nautical history, nature writing, mechanical engineering, and New York lore without distracting the reader from the heart of the book, which is the compelling story of a girl who gains the confidence to follow her blue-collar dream and is in turn humbled by that experience. She meets a lot of interesting people along the way—some helpful in her quest, some not—and the result is a rare look at an American subculture not at all used to outsiders.
Dulong’s voice is endearing throughout, and her journalism background clearly helps pace the story with colorful details and good-natured humor. Along the way, the reader picks up enough knowledge on the commercial and nautical histories of the Hudson River to fill a college course, without feeling overburdened with an endless array of facts and statistics. It’s a unique balance that makes the book a pleasure to read from beginning to end.
Dulong’s journey may have started as a personal quest, but by the end of the book this grows into a wider admiration for both the history of the river and its future. The author comes to see herself not as an outsider but as an integral part of a long tradition of residents, workers, and river-keepers who have made the Hudson River what it is today. As she writes:
While I wait in the moonlight, my eyes adjusting to the dark, a convergence of Hudson River activity unfurls before me. I can make out the shape of a tugboat pushing a loaded barge north, the boat’s deckhouse outlined in blue lights. Then the headlights of a passenger train appear, the engine speeding up the Hudson’s eastern shore, pulling its cars full of people. A second tug materializes, heading south, its yellow deck lights lined up in a row. This second tug is towing an empty barge, and it passes the other tug port to port, on the one-whistle side. At down the Hudson’s western shore. The scene before me embodies the mixed-use river of today—the tugs and barges, the trains hauling freight and people, the village of Cold spring twinkling across the river, with its pleasure boats bobbing on moorings, and artists and spectators like us, who have come to watch the ever-busy river by the light of the moon (267-68).
Anyone interested in learning more about the complex commercial history of the Hudson River and its communities will undoubtedly treasure My River Chronicles: Rediscovering America on the Hudson. But more than that, Ms. Dulong’s inspirational story should also be required reading for anyone who has ever pondered their own blue collar dreams. After reading her account of struggles and triumph, even the least mechanically inclined soul will be curious to see what the water looks like from inside the porthole.
—Tommy Zurhellen, Marist College