I've Known Rivers by Sara Lawrence

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I’ve Known Rivers

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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 violence in society. Orlando Bagwell, known for the PBS television production EYES ON THE PRIZE, works on a film that seeks to discover the real Malcolm X.

The book is successful insofar as the subjects are allowed the complexity of their own narratives. Yet a process of homogenization occurs as these six remarkable individuals are, one by one, presented, explained, justified, at times even apologized for, by their anxious interviewer. Moreover, the book is simply too long. There is too much repetition, too much commentary in relation to what is being commented on, too much putting into the author’s own words what has already been much effectively uttered in the words of her subjects. It seems that Lawrence-Lightfoot is determined to prove herself the master storyteller.

Sources for Further Study

Afro-American. October 29, 1994, p. B6.

Boston Globe. September 4, 1994, p. 14.

Kirkus Reviews. LXXII, July 1, 1994, p. 906.

Library Journal. CXIX, September 1, 1994, p. 202.

Ms. V, September, 1994, p. 77.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, November 13, 1994, p. 69.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, September 5, 1994, p. 80.

The Washington Post. November 8, 1994, p. E2.

I’ve Known Rivers

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2,263 words.)