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The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America's Dilemma.

By Alex Kotlowitz Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 317 pages. $24.95.

It's tempting to dismiss the writer Alex Kotlowitz as a kind of racial dilettante, darting in and out of black folks' lives with faux familiarity, exploiting their miseries and their trust just to sell another story and be regarded as an "expert." The former Wall Street Journal writer's first book, There Are No Children Here, was a closely observed, almost anthropological account of lives in Chicago's notorious public housing projects. It focused on two boys, Pharoah and Lafeyette. The volume won a host of awards, and Oprah Winfrey's production company adapted it into a made-for-television movie. But it also provoked some criticism that Kotlowitz had produced yet another paternalistic narrative.

His new book registers that criticism by focusing again on racial issues. But it also refutes that criticism, since it reveals that Kotlowitz has always been interested in more than just providing guided tours through "Bronzeville." Discerning readers of his first book already knew that, but any white author of black subjects has an odious tradition to live down.

With a narrative style that embraces rather than confronts, Kotlowitz is trying to demystify difference. His stories point to human commonalities, and he avoids the condescending voice typical of such chronicles; his gaze beholds but never de means. It's likely that more Americans became acquainted with the spirit-numbing realities of public housing through Kotlowitz's stories about Lafeyette and Pharoah than they did through any number of speeches and demonstrations.

His latest book provides readers with a more subtle understanding of our racial quandary. With focused intensity, Kotlowitz examines the 1991 drowning of a black teenager named Eric McGinnis in a racially divided region of southwestern Michigan.

Although he tries to solve the mystery of the sixteen-year-old boy's death, he is more interested in figuring out why opinions about the death were so racially coded--most blacks believed he was murdered, whites assumed he just drowned accidentally.

Kotlowitz's reporting is both meticulous and empathetic. It gives us a glimpse of our bifurcated national psyche.

The author was still working for the Wall Street Journal when he came upon the "Twin Cities" of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. The towns, on the eastern bank of Lake Michigan, are separated by the St. Joseph River. Benton Harbor is predominantly black and poor, while middle-class St. Joseph is overwhelmingly white.

Benton Harbor had a population of 12,000 in the last census, and it's shrinking. With an impoverished business community, a welter of abandoned buildings and vacant lots, and a high crime rate, Benton Harbor displays all of the woes of urban America.

St. Joseph's population was 9,000 in the last census, and it's growing. The town is full of yuppie boutiques and seaside businesses. Marinas along the river provide berths for hundreds of pleasure crafts, and the lakeshore is prime property for condos and vacation homes.

These two municipalities offered Kotlowitz a vivid metaphor for racial division in this country.

Here are the specifics: The bloated corpse of sixteen-year-old Eric McGinnis bobbed to the surface of the St. Joseph River near a Coast Guard station on May 22, 1991. That much, as Kotlowitz writes, "is not in dispute." But that's about the only consensus he uncovers in his four years of reporting and questioning, of pestering and badgering. Even after the official investigation concluded that McGinnis's death was an accidental drowning, Kotlowitz finds that "the people of Benton Harbor, young and old, liberal and conservative, whether they had been personally acquainted with Eric or not, were convinced not only that he had been murdered, but that he had been murdered by a white person." The people of St. Joseph by and large concur with the police report.

Kotlowitz was startled by the disparate perceptions of the respective populations. The racial prisms through which white and black Americans view reality even affect facts. "Such is the story of race," says Kotlowitz. "Such is the story of Eric's death. Truth becomes myth; myth becomes truth. And your perspective--myth or truth, truth or myth--is shaped by which side of the river you live on. In the end, all that matters is what you believe. Or so it seems."

With the arrogance typical of good journalists, Kotlowitz set out to solve the crime. "I thought perhaps I could restore some dignity to another faceless name and help put closure on the mystery surrounding his death," he writes. Instead, he encountered a dizzying array of barriers. Some result from his late entry into the fray. He didn't get involved in the story until more than a year after the Coast Guard found McGinnis's body. The case had grown cold, witnesses were no longer available, and people's memories were scrambled.

But Kotlowitz found that the greatest barrier was race. "Eric's death became a kind of Rashomon of the races, with relations between the towns distorting the perceptions of what happened on the night he disappeared," he writes.

McGinnis was a playful, energetic, and boastful teenager from the crumbling environs of Benton Harbor, a once elegant resort town about a two-hour drive from Chicago. On the night he disappeared, he had been in St. Joseph, partying at a teen nightspot called the Club. The Club was frequented primarily by whites, and McGinnis was said to be friendly with white girls. When his body was found, many in Benton Harbor quickly assumed foul play.

The police made another assumption: that he drowned accidentally. Because of this, they muffed the initial investigation. The Coast Guard hosed down the body even before the police arrived, the coroner's office performed an incomplete autopsy, and the police inexplicably abandoned several leads. And information later surfaced that the district attorney and the police had withheld relevant information.

Among many others, Kotlowitz profiles Lieutenant Jim Reeves, the St. Joseph cop who led the investigation. Although he spent a lot of time looking over Reeves's shoulder, scrutinizing his actions, and backtracking leads he had discarded, the "respected small-town cop" comes out looking pretty good. This is the author's great strength. He taps into those personal stories to mine the readers' empathy.

The question is, how effective is empathy? Did empathetic readers of There Are No Children Here have any effect on national policy regarding public housing? I can't discern any. What can The Other Side of the River do for "America's dilemma" of racial division? Perhaps those are the wrong questions. Perhaps that's Kotlowitz's point in writing his latest book: After all is said and done, there is no solution except to expose our racial divisions and strive to mend them.
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Author:Muwakkil, Salim
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
Words:1103
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