Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 287
The Other Side of the River , by Alex Kotlowitz, is a story based on true events that took place in two towns in Michigan regarding the death of a black teenage boy whose body was found in the river that separates the towns. The story is not told in...
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The Other Side of the River, by Alex Kotlowitz, is a story based on true events that took place in two towns in Michigan regarding the death of a black teenage boy whose body was found in the river that separates the towns. The story is not told in chronological order; rather, it is interspersed with facts about the towns and analysis of the people involved in the investigation. The towns, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, are as different as night and day; St. Joseph is predominately white and affluent, while Benton Harbor is predominantly black, impoverished, and overrun with crime. When Eric McGinnis, a black boy from Benton Harbor, goes to a club in St. Joseph on an evening in May of 1991, a series of events unfolds that ultimately leads to his death. Kotlowitz describes his own attempt to reconstruct those events by talking with the police and the residents of both towns and by exploring possible scenarios and motives.
It appears that after leaving the club, Eric and a group of white boys set off bottle rockets, stole a car, and got chased by the police, but what happened after that is much more speculative. Rumors about the murder abounded on both sides of the river, and they revolved around the accusation that McGinnis was murdered by whites in a racially-motivated killing that had something to do with their anger over McGinnis dating a white girl. In the wake of the crime, racial tensions escalated, and violence erupted between the residents of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. In the author’s attempt to analyze this unsolved murder, he exposes the racial divisions that continue to plague our society and the tragic consequences of longstanding hate.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1739
On May 22, 1991, a Coast Guard seaman pulled the body of a teenage black boy out of the St. Joseph River in St. Joseph, Michigan. As Alex Kotlowitz succinctly states in the first sentence ofThe Other Side of the River, “This much is not in dispute.” Almost everything else about the death of young Eric McGinnis, unfortunately, is in dispute. The book investigates the disappearance and subsequent death of the Michigan teenager and what his death ultimately reveals about the two towns most closely affected by it. Kotlowitz researched the yet-to-be-solved case for five years, interviewing more than two hundred people, including politicians, businessmen, teachers, and teenagers. He read and re- read hundreds of pages of police reports and interviews. Because he came to care deeply about the young man he never met, Kotlowitz dreamed of uncovering the truth about Eric’s death; instead, he uncovered invaluable truths regarding the state of race relations in America.
The towns in questions, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, Michigan, lie on opposite sides of the St. Joseph River but might as well lie on opposite sides of the world. St. Joseph is an idyllic, All- American town of nine thousand people, the vast majority of whom are white. Bordered by both the river and Lake Michigan, St. Joseph is a popular tourist destination, with beautiful beaches and marinas, valuable lakeside property, and trendy boutiques; it is virtually crime free. Benton Harbor, just across the river, is a town of twelve thousand people, more than 90 percent of whom are black. In 1989, Money magazine named Benton Harbor the worst place to live in America. In 1994, Benton Harbor had the highest per-capita murder rate in the nation, triple the rate of Chicago and New York, with twenty-one homicides. Although sharing the same beautiful location as St. Joseph, Benton Harbor is like a small version of a decimated inner city, so poor that at one time its five police cars were repossessed, and its sole fire truck was equipped only with a garden hose.
Area locals refer to the towns as “Benton Harlem” and “St. Johannesburg,” and distrust between the two runs deep. Frightened by the high crime rate, citizens of St. Joseph rarely, if ever, cross the Bicentennial Bridge to enter their “twin city.” Benton Harbor residents are equally uneasy to enter St. Joseph, believing that a black person in the overwhelmingly white town is always eyed with suspicion. Many Benton Harbor residents feel that they are followed by shopkeepers when they enter stores and that they are stopped for nonexistent traffic violations when they traverse the streets. This great chasm between the towns is graphically illustrated once a year by the annual Blossomtime Parade, which theoretically ties the cities together but in reality only serves to illustrate their differences. On the St. Joseph side of the parade route, the streets are lined with white townspeople, Confederate flags are hawked, and the radio and television viewing stands are erected. On the other side of the bridge, the parade route is lined with blacks, barbecued chicken and ribs are sold, and there is a heavy police presence. Also illustrating the great divide between the two towns, perhaps even more vividly than the Blossomtime Parade, is the contrast between the opinions on what caused Eric McGinnis’s death.
Eric was a fairly typical Benton Harbor sixteen-year-old: lively, charming, insecure, self-absorbed, perhaps somewhat immature for his age. Reared by a doting mother, and close to his father, Eric by all accounts was not associated with a gang, although he occasionally liked to intimate that he was “connected.” He prided himself on dressing and dancing well. On the evening of May 17, 1991, Eric asked his mother for five dollars and his father for a ride across the bridge into St. Joseph so that he could spend an evening at the Club, a teenage juice bar and dance club. Although predominantly frequented by whites, the Club was one of the few places where black and white youths interacted. Eric was reportedly friendly with several of the white girls who frequented the Club and had had a brief relationship with one of them. The two never met outside the dance club, although Eric would phone her at home, disguising his voice so that he sounded “white” when her parents answered.
All details about what happened from the time Eric’s father dropped him off at the Club until Eric’s body was discovered five days later are murky. Despite the inquiry by St. Joseph police lieutenant Jim Reeves and intensive investigation by the author (who became interested in the case a year after the incident), it is not known with any certainty what happened to Eric that evening. According to the most credible scenario, Eric did not stay at the Club but instead briefly joined up with a group of white boys across the street who were setting off bottle rockets, then was seen stealing from a parked car and chased by the car’s owner. The police joined the chase, but Eric eluded them.
Although theories abound, no one knows what happened to Eric after that point. Opinions regarding the cause of Eric’s death, however, are clearly racially motivated. Most St. Joseph citizens believe the official police report: death by accidental drowning. Those in Benton Harbor, however, almost universally believe that Eric was murdered: “The people of Benton Harbor, young and old, liberal and conservative, whether they had been personally acquainted with Eric or not, were convinced not only that he had been murdered, but that he had been murdered by a white person.”
Eric’s death caused the already tense relations between the cities to flare. Rumors flew in the black community that Eric had been found with a noose around his neck, and Eric’s mother had to restrain a group of his friends from starting trouble in St. Joseph. Some whites were threatened and beaten by blacks, and carloads of whites drove through Benton Harbor, harassing and threatening black citizens. St. Joseph parents kept their children home from school, and Benton Harbor parents warned their children not to cross the river. Most blacks believed that Eric’s death could be traced to the fact that he was the victim of revenge for breaking the most strongly held taboo in the St. Joseph community: dating white girls.
The Other Side of the River does not present a continuous narrative of the events surrounding Eric’s death but rather intersperses his story with histories of the “twin cities,” a history of the St. Joseph River, and character studies of both principal and peripheral figures in the investigation. Kotlowitz offers a full-blown presentation of Benton Harbor school-board politics, a detailed account of the controversial shooting of an unarmed black man by a white policeman, a description of the local 1992 sheriff’s race, and even the story of a possible lynching in St. Joseph in the 1930’s. These stories represent both the strength and weakness of the book. The background information is absorbing and familiarizes the reader with the social fabric in which the central event takes place. On the other hand, Eric’s story occasionally loses its impact, as the main narrative thrust is interrupted by seemingly unrelated accounts.
However, the portraits of complex, sympathetic, and very real people elevate the book beyond the realm of mere sociological reporting. The character of Eric’s mother Ruth, for example, resonates in the reader’s mind long after the book has been put down. Oddly, Ruth is one of the few residents of Benton Harbor who is hesitant to believe that her son was murdered by a white person. From a highly respected Benton Harbor family, Ruth is the highest-ranking black employee in her firm, and she has many white friends and associates. For a long while, she refuses to make Eric’s death a racial issue, and in fact she has fears that he might have been murdered by another black person. It is not until she receives what she perceives to be a racially motivated slight by a waitress several years after her son’s death that she allows herself to believe that her son may after all have been a victim of racial hatred.
Finally, Kotlowitz is unable to solve the mystery of Eric McGinnis’s death. He refuses to believe that Eric drowned while trying to swim across the river, but despite tracking down every lead, and talking to many people repeatedly over the years, he can conclude no more than that Eric either fell accidentally or was pushed into the river. What he and the reader can unmistakably conclude from his investigation, however, is that race is an enormous factor in our perception of life in America:
Indeed, Eric has come to embody what both sides of the river deem to be true—as seen through each one’s unique prism. For these two towns, Eric has come to mark the divide, a reference point. To those in St. Joseph, Eric’s death is proof that race blinds their neighbors to the obvious. To those in Benton Harbor, it is proof that because of race even the obvious is never what it seems.
Ironically, Kotlowitz stumbled upon Eric’s story while in Benton Harbor researching America’s forgotten cities for The Wall Street Journal, which he was doing to avoid working on America’s “hot topic” of the moment: the reaction to the Rodney King verdict. By his own admission, he became obsessed with the story, and in this obscure incident, unheard of outside county lines, he stumbled on all the complexity—and the emotionally and politically charged issues—present in the highly publicized King incident. This small snippet of American life, far away from the glare of publicity, affords an almost perfect microcosm of America’s racial problems: “Truth becomes myth, myth becomes truth. And your perspective—myth or truth, truth or myth—is shaped by which side of the river you live on. In the end all that matters is what you believe. Or so it seems.”
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, December 1, 1997, p. 586.
Choice. XXXV, June, 1998, p. 1771.
Library Journal. CXXIII, January, 1998, p. 122.
The Nation. CCLXVI, March 9, 1998, p. 28.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, February 15, 1998, p. 11.
The Progressive. LXII, March, 1998, p. 40.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, December 8, 1997, p. 62.
Time. CLI, February 9, 1998, p. 97.
The Washington Monthly. XXX, April, 1998, p. 43.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, January 11, 1998, p. 3.