I Scott Russell Sanders

The Floating House

How the story opens...

The winter of 1815 was so cold, the Ohio River froze from shore to shore. Wayne and Birdy McClure and their two children, Mary and Jonathan, huddled in the cabin of their flatboat, wrapped in quilts, listening to the ice groan and creak like the stairs in an old house.

Their boat still rested on dry land in Pittsburgh, along with hundreds of other flatboats, keelboats, skiffs and scows, canoes and barges and rafts, even a few of the newfangled steamboats, all waiting for the spring thaw to open the river.

Then one morning after a week of sunshine, the McClures woke to a sound like thunder. They looked out to see the green ice cracked into slabs, and black water showing through.

The current soon swept the river clear of ice. Everybody started launching boats, one family helping another. Those looking for new land, like the McClures were eager to reach the wild country downstream, where you could buy land for a dollar an acre and where the dirt was so rich, people said, you could plant a stick and it would break out in leaves.

In a crowd of boats, the McClures set off.