I read The Other Side of the River this week. It was a really good book, recommended by my friend Jennie. It’s written by Alex Kotlowitz the author of There Are No Children Here, which I read in 2003 before serving in Atlanta with AmeriCorps. Both of the books where excellent.
I’m not sure exactly how to review The Other Side of the River since it’s basically a story. It’s Non-fiction, regarding a real life incident and it follows interviews and research done by the author. Here’s the back cover synopsis:
Separated by the St. Joseph River, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor are two Michigan towns that are geographically close, yet in every sense worlds apart. St. Joseph is a prosperous lakeshore community, 95 percent white, while Benton Harbor is impoverished and 92 percent black. When the body of Eric McGinnis, a black teenage boy from Benton Harbor, is found in the river, relations between the two communities grow increasingly strained as long-held misperceptions and attitudes surface. As family, friends, and the police struggle to find out how McGinnis died. Alex Kotlowitz uncovers layers of both evidence and opinion, and demonstrates that in many ways, the truth is shaped by which side of the river you call home.
What I thought about long and hard while reading and after finishing was who I might recommend a book like this to. Reading the Afterword of the book, it was really encouraging to see that through the telling of this story and the different perspectives, the people (real life people) seemed to recognize the division there was between the towns and have begun making slow steps toward understanding. But, I wonder if this book, those who are affected and challenged by it (both readers and those personally involved in that town), are mostly those who were already open to the questions and challenges that the book raises.
What I mean is, those who find that this book and others like it challenge their stereotypes and open their eyes to the racism that exist in their society and even in their own lives, are those who are already open and willing to have those things challenged. For those who aren’t open to the challenges, I wonder if a book like this simply reinforces their stereotypes because they ignore the parts that would challenge them and focus their attention and memory on the parts that reinforce the stereotypes they already believe. The jury is still out on that one.
This book takes place in the 90’s, it is not decades old. The attitudes of the people, the racial divisions, the misunderstandings, these are not new occurrences or even all that rare in the United States. When we live, continually isolated geographically from people who are culturally different from us, there is an extremely high probability we will misunderstand each other.