June 21, 2007 archive

The Other Side of the River – Book Review

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. -From The Other Side of the River, page 9-

Two towns are separated by the muddy waters of the St. Joseph River, but as Alex Kotlowitz’s stunning novel unfolds the reader discovers that what divides these towns are the bigger issues of socioeconomics and race. St. Joseph, 95 percent white with pristine shops and manicured lawns, faces Benton Harbor – 92 percent black, littered and boasting one of the highest murder rates in the country. What does this have to do with a black teenager’s death?

Alex Kotlowitz, a former journalist for The Wall Street Journal, became obsessed with the death of Eric McGinnis when his swollen body was pulled from the St. Joseph River in May of 1991. Kotlowitz has spent years investigating why Eric ended up in the muddy waters of the river – and instead of answers, he has uncovered more and more questions. His novel explores the myths and truths – inexplicably woven together – that define the two towns caught up in the complexities of race relations – including socioeconomic differences, cultural stereotypes and political correctness.

The Other Side of the River is a compelling read – one I had a hard time putting down. Kotlowtiz writes with compassion and a yearning for understanding which gives both sides a clarity in an issue which has been clouded with anger and dissension. 

Was Eric’s death accidental or was there a more sinister explanation? In the end, Kotlowitz does not give the reader an answer, but rather leaves the conclusion open to interpretation. He lays down the “facts” of the case, and then allows the players to inject the emotion. At times, I wondered if I was reading a story set in the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement – and then was jolted back to the realization that instead this was a tale occurring in the mid 1990’s. How could there still be so much misunderstanding and animosity?

Kotlowitz has written an astounding treatise on race in the United States by showing us the life and death of one boy who found himself in the middle of two towns separated by more than a river.

Highly Recommended.

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