Crossing the River Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Crossing the River is a novel of the African diaspora, following the life stories of three Africans. Each is portrayed as being in some sense the child of a nameless father who sells his children into slavery, and, although each spends much of his or her life outside of slavery, this “peculiar institution” has indelibly marked them all.

Nash, Martha, and Travis cannot be the actual children of the unnamed father whose lament frames the novel: At least two generations separate Nash Williams from the father’s sale of his children, and an even greater time gap exists for the others. The characters are therefore either the real or the spiritual descendants of the father’s children. The father listens from afar for his children’s voices for 250 years. The biblical echoes of this figure are unmistakable; he lives in mythic time.

The novel’s first section, “The Pagan Coast,” tells of Nash Williams’s resettlement in West Africa. He arrives in 1834, filled with enthusiasm and high hopes. Nash first settles in Monrovia, then moves upriver into the countryside, where he starts a school. He converts some fifty Africans to Christianity. He relates these achievements in letters he sends to Edward, his former owner. Thanking God and Edward for his good fortune, Nash pleads for some small items he cannot obtain in Africa. There is no reply. Edward never receives his letters. As time goes on, Nash feels increasing desperation about his situation. Meanwhile, Edward has heard only indirect news of him through Madison, who has his own issues about Edward’s favoritism. After seven years, Madison reports that Nash has disappeared. Unwilling to believe it, Edward journeys to Liberia and finds not only that Nash is dead but also that all signs of his mission have...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Crossing the River Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Davison, Carol Margaret. “Crisscrossing the River: An Interview with Caryl Phillips.” Ariel 25 (October, 1994): 91-99. In a wide-ranging conversation, Phillips reflects on influences on his style and content, as well as his aims in writing the novel.

Diedrich, Maria, et al., eds. Black Imagination and the Middle Passage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Massive study of the African diaspora in literature, with two articles on Phillips.

Ledent, Benedicte. Caryl Phillips. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2002. Critical analysis of the author’s fiction, including Crossing the River.

Major, Charles. “Crossing the River.African-American Review 31 (Spring, 1997): 172. Long, perceptive review; focuses on slaves’ uprooting and its consequences.

Pinckney, Darryl. Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002. Includes a long essay on Phillips as a chronicler of the alienated and dispossessed.

Warnes, Andrew. “Enemies Within: Diaspora and Democracy in Crossing the River and A Distant Shore.” Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings 7 (2007): 33-45. Argues that Phillips presents racism as a psychological disorder. In his view, racism is both a cause and an effect of repression in what should be a democratic, all-inclusive, egalitarian society.