The Other Side of the River

by Alex Kotlowitz
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The Other Side of the River Summary

The Other Side of the River is a 1998 work of nonfiction focused on the death of Eric McGinness, a Black teen from Benton Harbor, Michigan.

  • Author and journalist Alex Kotlowitz goes to Benton Harbor and the neighboring town of St. Joseph in order to search for answers about McGinness’s death.
  • When McGinness’s body was found in the St. Joseph River, the event revealed the deep divide between predominantly Black Benton Harbor and predominantly white St. Joseph.
  • Kotlowitz researches the case alongside Lieutenant Jim Reeves, the lead investigator, and interviews residents of both towns, but McGinness’s death remains a mystery.

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Last Updated on July 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982

The Other Side of the River is a 1998 nonfiction book by journalist Alex Kotlowitz. The book focuses on the death of Eric McGinness, a sixteen-year-old Black student from Benton Harbor, Michigan, and the fraught racial dynamic of the two communities involved. The book is nonlinear, jumping backward and forward in time through a series of illustrative vignettes. Kotlowitz employs “gonzo” journalism, weaving his own experience as an investigator through the text.

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The narrative begins when the body of a teenage boy is recovered near the mouth of the St. Joseph River, just west of where it meets Lake Michigan. He is soon identified as Eric McGinness, a resident of neighboring Benton Harbor, and he appears to have drowned.

The towns of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph are often referred to as “twin cities,” but they're diametrically different in practice. St. Joseph is affluent, picturesque, and majority white. Benton Harbor, just across the Bicentennial Bridge to the west, is predominantly Black and conspicuously under-resourced. Immediately, residents of the two towns begin to speculate. Did Eric drown, or is the water concealing something else? Why was he on the “white” side of the river?

The divergent conclusions drawn by the public seem to cleanly mirror the region’s racial divide: the white residents of St. Joseph believe it must be an accident, while the Black residents of Benton Harbor are convinced the teen was murdered. Further, they’re sure he was murdered by a white person.

Kotlowitz works with the case’s lead investigator, Lieutenant Jim Reeves, as he researches the story of Eric McGinness. Though Reeves has been on the force for a long time, homicide investigation is new to him—St. Joseph is such a low-crime town that he’s never had to investigate another one. From Reeves, the author learns that Eric spent the night before his disappearance at “The Club,” a teen venue in St. Joseph. The Club is one of the only places in the two towns where white and Black teens regularly commingle.

The racial divide between the two towns was palpable before the events of the book, and a number of historic injustices have made Benton Harbor residents wary of their white neighbors and racism within the police force. As the investigation continues, Kotlowitz contextualizes the McGinness case within this history, threading an ongoing string of police killings and judicial miscarriages through the modern narrative.

Eric’s death amplifies this tension considerably. As Kotlowitz inserts himself into the town, interviewing people from Eric’s life—his mother, Ruth; his teachers; his friends and ex-girlfriends—it’s clear that the death has had an incendiary effect on the already volatile region. It is for this reason, Reeves asserts, that he has kept some details out of the press: prior to his death, it appears Eric was caught breaking into a car belonging to a St. Joseph resident named Ted Warmbein, who angrily chased after the teen when he caught him.

Kotlowitz speaks to Ted Warmbein and then to more of Eric’s friends, family, and peers, but there seems to be no satisfactory explanation for how the teen wound up in the river. Eric’s family continues to grieve, rumors around town continue to proliferate, and Kotlowitz and Reeves try to make sense of the death to no avail. As he investigates, Kotlowitz notes the rampant and growing polarization between the two towns in both the domestic and the public sphere. Just as Benton Harbor and St. Joseph residents are disagreeing in their homes, they’re clashing in school board and municipal elections, too. At stake are the facts, but also the implications of whatever those facts turn out to be—whether it was a hate crime, the result of gang violence in the violent Benton Harbor, or teenage carelessness, someone’s worst fear will be realized.

Kotlowitz chases lead after lead but still has only a rough picture of Eric’s last night: he was most likely dropped off at The Club by his father, Excell, who watched him enter and then drove away. Once Eric got far enough inside to see that the crowd was sparser than he’d like, he seems to have wandered off on his own down an adjacent alleyway. At some point, he may have broken into Ted Warmbein’s car and been chased for a time, but Warmbein’s story—that the spry teen easily outran him, a sedentary man in his forties—is highly plausible. The time between that altercation and the recovery of Eric’s body is still unaccounted for.

One tip from a burglar named Daniel Thornton suggests what some rumors have already hinted at: that Eric was dancing at the club with a white girl and was killed by white St. Joseph kids in retribution. The Thornton story fills in some gaps, and validates what many Benton Harbor residents have already assumed to be true, but is ultimately disregarded on the reasoning that a body can’t float upstream, which it would have had to do if Thornton’s geography was right.

As Kotlowitz contends with an inconclusive case that may never have a clear answer, he shifts his focus to the legacy Eric McGinness will leave on the two towns and the state of racial discourse in the United States. Eric’s mother, Ruth, will never be the same, but the towns, too, have been permanently altered. For some, this death represents the worst case scenario of what might happen again if things don’t change in the Twin Cities. For others, it’s a codification of their worst fears and anxieties about the racial landscape around them.

After spending some time canoeing the river, Kotlowitz closes the narrative with a final bit of speculation: if the wind conditions were just right, it might have been possible for a body to drift upstream that fateful evening.

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