I’VE KNOWN RIVERS: LIVES OF LOSS AND LIBERATION is based on long tape-recorded interviews, conducted over extended periods, with six subjects, all of them middle- to upper-middle- class African Americans in their middle years. That the story told by the book as a whole is the story of its author as well as of her subjects becomes clear as she reminds us that the description of her subjects fits her as well.
These subjects certainly constitute a sufficiently interesting group in themselves, and the author’s method of interviewing over an extended period means that readers observe the six storytellers living their lives as well as narrating them. They are also men and women of dedication and accomplishment. Katie Cannon, daughter of North Carolina sharecroppers, is an ordained Presbyterian and a tenured professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Toni Schiesler, a former Roman Catholic nun, now married, aspires to the priesthood in the Episcopal church. Cheryle Wells, owner of newspapers, radio stations, and the largest funeral home in the country, devotes herself to community activities. Charles Ogletree, now a member of the Harvard Law faculty, has enjoyed a remarkable record of success as criminal defense lawyer—in ten years as a public defender in Washington, D. C., he never lost a case. Tony Earls, also at Harvard, applies his scientific intelligence to an attempt to document the major sources of crime and...
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer, published in 1988, won a Christopher Award and was recognized in The New York Times Book Review as one of the Notable Books of the Year. The subject was obviously meaningful for the author: the life of her mother, Margaret Morgan Lawrence, one of the first African American child psychiatrists in the United States. Yet the book also remains notable for its method. It was based on a regularly scheduled series of long tape-recorded interviews, which were then selected, edited, and commented on by Lawrence-Lightfoot. The emphasis was on the personal rather than on the public, and the story that emerged, as the author herself affirms, was that of the daughter and author as well as of her mother. Storytelling, the name Lawrence-Lightfoot gives to her method, represents an alternative to more conventional academic methods of social science. Some critics have even suggested that the author has invented a new literary genre.
The triumph of Balm in Gilead rests to a considerable degree on the striking match of method and matter. Throughout the book, a tension between detachment and intimacy, reflecting the author’s dual identity as social historian and daughter, generates drama and insight. By the end of the book, readers come to know two remarkable women with a kind of clarity that could hardly have been achieved in any other way.
What remained uncertain after the achievement of Balm in Gilead was whether the methods so triumphantly employed there would work as well for subjects with which the author was less personally involved. Insofar as I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation can be regarded as providing an answer to that question, the issue is still in doubt.
I’ve Known Rivers is based on long tape-recorded interviews conducted over extended periods with six subjects, all of them middle- to upper-middle-class African Americans in their middle years. There is no family connection between the author and her subjects, yet it remains true here as in Balm in Gilead that the story told by the book as a whole is the story of its author as well as of her subjects. As she reminds readers, the description of her subjects fits her as well. In fact, that is one of the problems of this book. The sense of the author-interviewer’s personality that made Balm in Gilead a compelling portrait of a relationship of mother and daughter can, in I’ve Known Rivers, seem merely an intrusion. One review of Balm in Gilead, while generally laudatory, regretted that readers are not permitted to hear the voice of Margaret Morgan Lawrence unfiltered and undiluted. Since the relationship of interviewer and subject lacks the intrinsic dramatic interest of that of mother and daughter, the reader of I’ve Known Rivers may feel a similar, but more intense, regret with regard to the six human beings whose stories are filtered on this occasion through the consciousness and values of Lawrence-Lightfoot.
These subjects certainly constitute a sufficiently interesting group in themselves, and the author’s method of interviewing over an extended period means that readers observe the six storytellers living their lives as well as narrating them. Katie Cannon, the daughter of North Carolina sharecroppers, for the first time writes a letter to her illiterate father. Cheryle Wills suffers the pain of divorce. Toni Schiesler carries on her struggle to achieve ordination in the Episcopal Church. These stories-in-process yield moments of genuine dramatic intensity.
These are also men and women of dedication and accomplishment. Charles Ogletree has enjoyed a remarkable record of success as criminal defense lawyer; in ten years as a public defender in Washington, D.C., he never lost a case. Now he seeks to integrate his position as a member of the faculty of Harvard University, that most elite of elite white academic institutions, with his commitment to equal justice for all. Tony Earls, also a member of the Harvard faculty, applies his scientific intelligence by attempting to document the major sources of crime and violence in society and prepares his major creative work, a study of how large urban environments constrict development. Orlando Bagwell, known for the two-part public television production Eyes on the Prize (1987-1989), works on a film that seeks to discover the real Malcolm X. Speaking as a father, he resolves that his kids will...