THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER
By Alex Kotlowitz
Nan A. Talese, Doubleday
The death of Eric McGinnis, a black teen living in Benton Harbor, Mich., is the focus of Alex Kotlowitz's careful and riveting book, "The Other Side of the River." In trying to determine if Eric was murdered, or accidentally drowned, Kotlowitz spent nearly six years shuttling back and forth between the impoverished, almost all black town of Benton Harbor, and its neighbor across the St. Joseph River, the white, prosperous town of St. Joseph, Mich.
Between the towns, two short bridges had become feeble links. As Kotlowitz discovered, the bridges were more of a no man's land between warring blacks and whites, separated for decades by profound distrust and economic disparity. Sadly, the underlying story here is the profound American problem of racial intolerance.
Kotlowitz writes, "I've come to realize that most of us would like to do right, but as we said of the South's politicians during Jim Crow, race diminishes us. It incites us to act as we wouldn't in other arenas; clumsily, cowardly and sometimes cruelly."
When Eric, a fun-loving, engaging youth, is pulled from the river (on the St. Joseph side) after disappearing for a few days, an investigation is launched under the direction of Lt. Jim Reeves of the St. Joseph police. No deadly marks or injuries are on the body,
But Benton Harbor concludes immediately the cause is murder at the hands of a white person, not drowning. St. Joseph worries less about the cause of Eric's death as fear increases, and old prejudices are confirmed: another dead black from a city that by 1994 has the highest murder rate in the nation.
Kotlowitz writes with absolutely perfect pitch, his lean prose crossing the threads of many stories as he moves between context and detail. His previous book, "There Are No Children Here," about two black boys living in the projects in Chicago, won many awards.
Kotlowitz's skill in his second book is to illuminate the complexity of the personal stories of people touched by the death, and fit them into the shortcomings of the two communities.
He interviewed hundreds of people, and spent weeks living near the towns, his proximity and tenacity forging trust beyond race. For instance, Kotlowitz learned that officials in St. Joseph, including Lieutenant Reeves, withheld information about a key incident that may have preceded Eric's death by hours. Eric had been dancing at a teen club, and apparently left after some kind of confrontation either with a white girl or white boys who saw him dancing with a white girl. Not long after that, he was seen robbing a car, a fact not made public by initial investigators as angry young blacks gathered on the streets, blindly sure McGinnis had been murdered and looking for a reason to riot.
Reeves and other officials went to Ruth McGinnis, Eric's distraught mother, looking for guidance about what could be an explosive disclosure. She agreed that telling about the robbery wasn't necessary. Later she told Kotlowitz that she deeply regretted the deceit. "And so St. Joseph's leaders," writes Kotlowitz, "who had little reason to deal with their black neighbors, certainly little reason to deal with them as peers or as colleagues, operated in a climate of misconstrued overtures and false assumptions."
Even the local St. Joseph newspaper editor withheld the robbery information. He, too, later regretted his decision and went on to significantly improve coverage of Benton Harbor, even though he failed to attract black reporters. In the end, Kotlowitz never found the undeniable causes for Eric's death, although he believes the teen either fell in the cold river accidentally or was pushed.
Today the case remains open. Kotlowitz's masterly investigation ultimately reveals the tragedy of racial stereotypes.
* David Holmstrom is a Monitor staff writer.