Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 310
Kotlowitz's journalistic, non-fictional narrative addresses race, prejudice, class, and social inequality and takes place in two towns in Michigan which are divided by the St. Joseph River. The river is representative of the racial divide between blacks and whites in both Michigan and America.
The story's characters are members of the two towns. One town is the poorer Benton Harbor, with over ninety percent black citizens, and the second is St. Joseph, a prosperous community with over ninety percent white citizens. The attitudes and beliefs of the citizens in both towns are exposed when the body of Eric McGinnis, a black teenager from Benton Harbor, is discovered in the river.
The investigation of McGinnis's death sparks revelations of fear, resentment, and misperception on both sides of the river. Kotlowitz shares the opposing explanations of McGinnis' death by townspeople of both sides. Whites of St. Joseph say Eric was affiliated with gangs coming out of Chicago; blacks of Benton Harbor say he was killed by whites from St. Joseph for dating a white girl. Kotlowitz examines how one's environment can quickly shape one's perspective and outlook on most life issues.
Kotlowitz shares information he gained about not only the death of McGinnis but also the events surrounding the night he died from countless interviews with people in both towns. He even shares insights from Eric's mother, Ruth McGinnis, who avoids racial divisions and is not quick to blame whites across the river for her son's death.
There are two other main characters, who lead the investigation of the young boy's death. Both are white county officials: Dennis Wiley, county prosecutor, and Jim Reeves, county detective.
While the book centers on the investigation of McGinnis's death, it also addresses a long history of racially-inspired violence and events between the two cities, which provides background information for understanding the people of the area.
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