Archive for the ‘inequlity’ Tag

Grief Among the Living   Leave a comment

When five-year-old Clara Bynum drowns in the Potomac River, the impact of her death weighs heavily on her parents, her older sister Johnnie Rae and the Black community in Georgetown where they live.

Although Breena Clarke’s novel, River, Cross My Heart could more easily be titled River, Break My Heart, how pre-teen Johnnie Rae processes her sister’s accident is the most interesting aspect. The narrative unfolds in a series of vignettes describing the residents, many who moved to this Washington, D.C., neighborhood from the south seeking a better life. By all accounts, their situations were greatly improved: jobs for the adults and schools for the children.

Johnnie Rae was tasked with caring for Clara, something she both resented and took seriously. She had only taken her eyes off the younger girl for a few minutes, and despite multiple efforts to save Clara from in the fast moving water, Johnnie Rae has no clear memory of what happened. Later, she is certain the new girl in school is Clara incarnate.

Unsurprisingly, though they were better off, the jobs were menial and opportunities were both limited and unequal. The latter is something Johnnie Rae finds especially irksome in the form of a nearby whites-only swimming pool. The Potomac is the only place she and her friends can swim and play in the water. Johnnie Rae is a natural born swimmer; something she does with ease and grace. It’s never clear how she came to be so adept. Nonetheless, being in the water is where she feels she is most herself. Eventually, a new pool opens for Blacks where she joins the swim team.

Clarke’s descriptions of the circa 1925 neighborhood, its residents and the Bynum family’s loss are vivid. However, framing this as a series of short stories rather than a novel would be more effective; there are too many detours to form a clear plot.

River, Cross My Heart

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Little, Brown and Co., 1999

245 pages