River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke

River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke

One would expect a novel that starts with the drowning of a child to be a tragic book. River, Cross My Heart is anything but. It takes place in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC in the 1920’s, and is based on stories the author was told by her family about living in the African-American community of Georgetown at that time.

One hot summer day, 12-year-old Johnnie Mae disobeys her parents’ rule and decides to go swimming in the Potomac River. One impetus for this daredevil act is the fact that she is not allowed to swim in the only pool in the neighborhood, which is for white children. Her 8-year-old sister, Clara, who doesn’t know how to swim, falls off a branch into the water and drowns despite Johnnie Mae’s efforts to save her.

The novel uses this event as a way to show how the community mourns together, works together, and eventually celebrates together. Clara reappears in memory throughout the book as Johnnie Mae does chores, goes to school, makes a new friend, and participates in community events. Although the plot is not strong, there is forward movement and a satisfying closure. The characters are engaging and three-dimensional. Each chapter paints one scene or vignette in the life of Johnnie Mae as she grows up, searches for her place in the world, and tries to forgive herself for her sister’s death.

I don’t know if Breena Clarke is a poet, but the writing style is beautiful and full of images that reflect inner states of being. Shortly after Clara’s death, as Johnnie Mae helps with the cooking, she is mesmerized by what she sees in the boiling water:

The string beans Johnnie Mae poured into the boiling water came alive as they touched the water. They wriggled like garter snakes. Her eyes stayed on them as they hit bottom then floated to the top. A foamy substance bubbled on the surface of the water. . . . From the center of the cauldron, a mass seemed to form. It appeared to come together in the shape of a heart, disperse like a cloud, and then reformulate into a solid mass. It seemed to come together this time as a heart-shape face with amused eyes. Slender green plaits emanated from its skull and framed the face. (p. 87)

I enjoyed this novel not only because of the characters and language, but also because it immerses us in the details of daily life at that time and place. Everyone—children included—worked hard at home and held jobs for pay. Women worked as cooks, seamstresses, beauticians, and herbal healers. Johnnie Mae delivers and picks up clothes for a laundress. We also learn about the changes affecting the community. Electricity is introduced, and we feel the excitement when a swimming pool for African-Americans is finally built.

This novel is not at all sentimental, yet is full of heart. It was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.

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