July 16, 2008
The Other Side of the River
The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America's Dilemma by Alex Kotlowitz reports on two towns in southwest Michigan and a murder case that exposed racial tensions. For reviews, see below.
The author of There Are No Children Here follows up that magnificent effort with the gripping story of a mysterious death in southwest Michigan. A black teenager surfaces in the St. Joseph River, drowned. How did he get there? The towns of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, divided by both race and the river, grapple with the possibilities in this maddeningly difficult case. Alex Kotlowitz puts his sharp reporting skills to good work here, describing in detail everything that is known about Eric McGinnis's short life and untimely death. But the book is best at plumbing the racial psychology of these mutually suspicious communities. The Other Side of the River has that can't-put-it-down quality found in the best narrative nonfiction, and it speaks to issues affecting all of America.
From Library Journal
Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here, LJ 4/1/91) has produced another exemplary piece of investigative reportage that reveals the chasm between blacks and whites, rich and poor, in America. Two Michigan towns?predominately white, prosperous St. Joseph and predominantly black, poverty-stricken Benton Harbor?are separated by a river and years of mistrust, suspicion, and vastly differing life experiences. When the death of a black teenage boy found floating in the river remains unsolved, the polarized perceptions of blacks and whites toward the justice system are exposed. Kotlowitz's Herculean efforts to unravel the mystery is unsuccessful, but the telling of his pursuit of the truth is a compelling and suspense-filled story. And in the absence of definitive answers, the myths and perceptions created from the distinct historical experiences of the two communities become the truth that ultimately matters. Highly recommended for all libraries.
-Faye Powell, Portland State Univ. Lib., Ore.
From Kirkus Reviews
A powerful record of an untimely death--perhaps suicide, more probably murder--in middle America, from the writer whose 1991 bestseller There Are No Children Here awoke the country to the reality of life in urban ghettoes. Former Wall Street Journal staff writer Kotlowitz stumbled on the story of Eric McGinnis's 1991 death in southern Michigan a year after the fact, when, he writes, he should have been covering the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King trial. Yet he maintains, and rightly, that McGinnis's death speaks equal volumes about the condition of race relations in America. McGinnis, a black teenager, was found drowned in a narrow river separating two small communities, one white and well-to-do (St. Joseph), the other black and desperately poor (Benton Harbor). The facts of McGinnis's death are, Kotlowitz notes, ``elusive . . . And your perspective . . . is shaped by which side of the river you live on.'' Black teenagers maintained that whites in St. Joseph murdered McGinnis because he had dated a white girl; white teenagers blamed his death on rival gangs that had moved in from Chicago and Detroit. Both sides abandoned rational discourse to pursue vendettas, while their elders reverted to long-held notions of the virtues of sticking with one's own kind. There are no villains, exactly, in Kotlowitz's narrative, which is full of voices from both sides of the river and which at times takes on a Rashomon-like quality. Nor are there many heroes. And the victim himself, writes Kotlowitz, was just a regular kid, ``insecure, self-involved, and at times self-destructive,'' who may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The trouble is, as Kotlowitz's book shows, America is full of wrong places, depending on the color of one's skin. This sad message lends McGinnis's death meaning, even if, as the author admits, we will probably never know what caused it. Kotlowitz has produced a skillfully rendered, thoughtful study of a divided country in microcosm.
Posted by ljridley at July 16, 2008 11:37 AM