Alex Kotlowitz – The Other Side of the River (Book Review)

The Other Side of the River cover

Alex Kotlowitz - The Other Side of the River

Alex Kotlowitz’s The Other Side of the River is a disturbing look at race relations in America. Set in both the picturesque white town of St. Joseph and its poor black neighbor, Benton Harbor, it portrays a culture where tension and mistrust are always threatening to boil over. It’s specifically about Eric McGinnis, a black teenager who was found dead in the river that separates the two towns, but it takes the time to cover other events both large (police violence and near-riots) and small (threats and ruined meals). If this weren’t non-fiction, the extremes of these two towns would seem way too exaggerated to take seriously.

The book covers McGinnis’ death and the unresolved investigation out of chronological order, but in a natural way. There are many layers to the case, especially when it relates to the larger issue of race, and Kotlowitz makes an excellent guide through the twists and turns. This control over the information is occasionally frustrating – many chapters end on cliffhangers that feel more forced than the rest of the content, and I wish it hadn’t taken the entire book before it mentioned natural explanations for the hints of foul play at the start. Still, this sticks out mainly because the author successfully uses such a light touch most of the time.

Almost every stereotype you may have, good and bad, about either race can be confirmed by some passages of the book and challenged by others. Casual racism, community spirit, and an ignorance of the other town permeate both sides of the river. McGinnis himself seemed to be at a crossroads before he died, with plenty of signs that he was a petty thief balanced out by a clowning good nature and the universal teenage longing to belong.

The Other Side of the River’s inconclusiveness is both its strongest and weakest point. By refusing to draw any conclusions, or even state non-obvious opinions about the people who appear in the book, Kotlowitz very accurately captures the uncertainty around the issue. Americans have no answers about the state of race relations, and rarely manage to even put the current status quo into words. The book’s power doesn’t lie in the truth of what happened, but in the fact that almost all white people are convinced that the death was an accidental drowning while almost all black people believe it was a murder. Sometimes Kotlowitz’s insistence on sticking to the facts is frustrating. He refuses to call out police incompetence, but also doesn’t push back against those who insist that there must be a huge conspiracy to cover up a murder. The dry, unsensationalistic approach to such hot-button issues paints a clear picture in the reader’s mind, though, and allows them to examine the situation without knee-jerk responses.

It’s difficult to tell how much the author’s point of view influences the portrayal. Many of the stories here will be shocking to readers who aren’t used to thinking about race as such a prominent factor in our culture. But then, most of the people in the book are also surprised by what happens, and they frequently say that race is not a big deal there. In this context, those claims appear naïve if not willfully ignorant, but maybe it’s just because their life does not share the single-minded focus of the book. As an example, Kotlowitz explains about the absolute taboo on interracial dating there (one theory is that McGinnis was murdered for dating a white girl), but he immediately follows up with interviews from a large group of white girls who were dating black boys at the time. Following a standard set by one of the most popular girls in school, they didn’t seem to have much trouble with their choice.

Written during the days of the Rodney King trial and President Clinton’s call for a national conversation on race, The Other Side of the River takes an unflinching look at these issues in a much more effective, and healthy, way than either of those events managed. If it occasionally seems inconsistent, incomplete, or just plain unsatisfying, that’s an appropriate depiction of our time. It’s not intended to provide final answers, but to be a conversation-starter.

Grade: B

    • Alvety
    • March 12th, 2014

    What does Grade:B mean?

    • This was a review, and the B means I recommend it. I’m not going to go around insisting that everyone I know should give it a try, but if it sounds like something you’ll like, then you’re probably right.
      The full explanation of my grades is here:

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