Last Updated on July 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507
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 correspondingly has mostly white residents. Kotlowitz chose to write about the two towns because in 1991, a sixteen-year-old Black student, Eric McGinness, died, and his body was found in the river that separates the towns. How did he die? And where? Questions about the circumstances and location of his death are closely connected to issues of racial divisions and discrimination, and Kotlowitz tells readers a story about the search for answers.
The idea that white youths had murdered McGinness seemed all too credible to people in Benton Harbor, whose population was ninety-two percent 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 McGinness’s death was accidental. He committed to learning what people thought and how their beliefs had shaped their actions.
We can meet McGinness 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 McGinness’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 McGinness 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 racial, income, and status gaps between the people he encountered.
Kotlowitz effectively creates characters that are bigger than individuals, however. His urban biographies of the two towns endow them with distinct personalities, shaped by cultural, social, and political geography. Rejecting any notion that wealth and prosperity are natural in any given location or that they are primarily an outgrowth of a physical environment, he traces the systemic legal processes that created deep inequality. Again, questions of how? and where? structure his account, but in this case, these questions relate to each town’s growth in the shadow of the other.
The lasting effects of McGinness’s death, both the possible personal catharsis and the needed social improvements it had the potential to catalyze, are more difficult to identify. In part this is because Kotlowitz had to close his story at some point in time, regardless of reaching a clear conclusion. The lack of resolution, however, also inheres within US history as an unfinished epic in which white and Black Americans have too rarely joined forces to mend the social fabric.