The Other Side of the River

Paige Williams reviews 'The Other Side of the River' by Alex Kotlowitz.

Published January 29, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

BY PAIGE WILLIAMS | The body of a black teenager surfaces in a Michigan river. Eric McGinnis is dead and no one knows why. Was he murdered? Was it suicide? An accident? Alex Kotlowitz started with those questions but found a universal mystery when he went to investigate McGinnis' death. Kotlowitz, author of the bestselling "There Are No Children Here," was on assignment for the Wall Street Journal and thought perhaps he could help bring closure to the case when he arrived in southwestern Michigan in 1992. Instead, he stepped into a swamp -- and recognized, as is his forte, the opportunity to explore the origins and manifestations of a community's deep-running prejudice and bitterness and fear. "The Other Side of the River" is the story of two small towns "whose only connections are two bridges and a powerful undertow of contrasts."

On one side of the river is St. Joseph, white and prosperous; on the other is Benton Harbor, black and poor -- "landscapes so dissimilar ... the view can take your breath away." Benton Harbor assumed Eric had been murdered; St. Joseph, well ... it depended on whom Kotlowitz asked. Kotlowitz uses Eric's death as the central theme in a larger story of racial divide, symbolized, of course, by the long-running river. He reported the story for five years (in fact over-reported in a couple of stretches, one might say) and found no irrefutable picture of Eric's life and death. But truth rarely shows its whole face.

What Kotlowitz also did was dig until he'd exposed the underlying virus in race relations: nuances of ignorance that quietly multiply to gird suspicions and weight significant events with ingrained beliefs and experiences past. Was the county jail really built on the river's edge to stand as warning to all who might cross the bridge into St. Joseph? Did blue ribbons on car antennae signify innocent support of a cop who'd shot a black suspect, or did they represent white solidarity? Did anyone really care whether black guys dated white girls? Here's a typical story: When a St. Joseph dentist's wife suggested that St. Joseph and Benton Harbor schools start a pen-pal program across the river, St. Joe officials said no: "She was told by a high school official, 'Well, if they start writing, they might start talking on the phone.'"

That quote might come from a mouth anywhere in this country. But in writing about this young man, in this divided place, Kotlowitz captures a microcosm of "America's dilemma," as he calls it, and at a moment when the nation is supposed to be talking about race. The answers aren't in this book, but the symptoms of the illness are. Kotlowitz chronicles the investigation, comes to his own conclusions and leaves us with a compelling truth, that ultimately "the facts become elusive ... Truth becomes myth; myth becomes truth," and such matters can remain cloudy as a river bottom. Race and Eric's death: Both cases are still open.

By Paige Williams

Paige Williams, a staff writer for The Charlotte Observer, is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

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