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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

In this nonfiction account, a town on one side of a river in Michigan appears as home primarily to black residents, and another town on the opposite bank side correspondingly has mostly white residents. Kotlowitz chose to write about the two towns because in 1991, a a 16-year-old African American boy, Eric McGinnis, died, and his body was found in the river that separates them. How did he die? And where? Questions about the circumstances and location of his death are closely connected to issues of US racial divisions and discrimination, and Kotlowitz tells us a story about the search for answers.

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The idea that white youths had murdered Eric seemed all too credible to people in Benton Harbor, whose population was 92% black, while those in St. Josephs, similarly racially skewed in its white population, tended to be skeptical of such claims. The resulting confrontations—from violent clashes to legal battles—structure the narrative. Kotlowitz’s goal in writing this book was neither to “solve” the crime nor to “prove” that Eric’s death was accidental. He committed to learning what people thought and how their beliefs had shaped their actions.

We can meet Eric only through others’ eyes, because his absence catalyzed Kotlowitz’s search for answers. The author spent countless hours speaking with a highly diverse array of people—some closely tied to the victim, others casually connected to him, and still others affected just by living in the towns. Among these was Ruth McGinnis, Eric’s mother, who struggled to make sense of the tragedy that took her son. Some people were quick to cast blame, including on the victim himself, and theories about interracial dating or gang involvement ran rampant. If the “accident” was that Eric was in the wrong place, what makes a specific place wrong, and for whom? Kotlowitz found that the opinions were not always divided neatly by race, and he was moved when he encountered genuine attempts at bridging the...

(The entire section contains 506 words.)

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