Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Shared themes hold together the diverse life stories of this novel. The original sin of paternal abandonment is repeated down the generations of the diaspora. Even Nash’s substitute father figure, Edward, ultimately casts him off by his failure to investigate Nash’s silence until it is too late. Minor characters too are caught up in this pattern: Martha’s lover Chester admits to having lost track of the children whom he fathered. Maternal absence is a related theme, but its results are shown somewhat differently—in the sorrow of the mother rather than the biblical child’s lament “Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Martha openly grieves for her lost daughter. Joyce’s sorrow is shown indirectly.

The motif of the absent father is accompanied by the related motif of dislocation. Each “child” dies not only far from his or her home ground but also in an alien place and culture. Joyce’s dislocation is interior, mental rather than physical. It represents more than typical English reticence: Her mental universe is different from other peoples’.

The final message of Crossing the River is one of qualified hope. Even alone and bereft, Nash, Martha, and Travis—and Joyce, the honorary refugee—win a sort of victory by their endurance and their capacity for love despite its dangers.