The Other Side of the River

by Alex Kotlowitz
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The Other Side of the River Characters

The main characters in The Other Side of the River include Eric McGinness, Alex Kotlowitz, and Lieutenant Jim Reeves.

  • Eric McGinness is the book’s central figure. He was a Black sixteen-year-old from Benton Harbor, Michigan, whose body was recovered from the St. Joseph River.
  • Alex Kotlowitz is the book’s author. A journalist, he spends several years researching McGinness’s death but must ultimately accept that he hasn’t found the answers.
  • Lieutenant Jim Reeves is the lead investigator in the McGinness case. While he genuinely wants to solve the case, he is unprepared to face the racial tensions it brings up.

Characters

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Last Updated on July 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 947

Eric McGinness

Eric McGinniss, a sixteen-year-old Black resident of Benton Harbor, Michigan, is the central focus of The Other Side of the River. His death constitutes the book’s prevailing narrative.

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Eric himself is a complex figure. In life, he was described as affable, energetic, friendly, charming, flirty, bold, and stylish, but also manipulative, unfocused, and a little bit naïve. The residents of Benton Harbor remember him fondly but also acknowledge that he occasionally stole small things and demonstrated a willingness to lie for material gain.

In death, Eric becomes reduced by many residents to a symbol of the tensions and disparities between Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. Those in Benton Harbor are convinced he has been murdered—many assuming as retribution for dating white girls—while most of those in St. Joseph think he was a teen from the wrong side of the river who got too careless and isn’t worth further inquiry. A concrete narrative of his death is never established, and the book closes with a meditation on not knowing and a reflection on the legacy of his death.

Alex Kotlowitz

Alex Kotlowitz, the book’s author, is a journalist who first became involved with the McGinness case through his work at the Wall Street Journal.

Kotlowitz researches the case for a number of years, ingratiating himself into the towns of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph and appearing frequently as a character of sorts in the text. He is, by his own admission, not just interested in the case, but fixated on it. Through his narration, it is evident that the author’s connection to the death is driven by the dual forces of emotion and curiosity. He finds himself becoming deeply empathetic to many of the people he speaks to, often imagining himself in their place and revealing things about his own life in order to better understand their position. He is also deeply, profoundly hungry for a concrete answer to the mystery and is ultimately forced to reckon at the text’s close with his frustration at the anticlimactic nature of his investigation.

Lieutenant Jim Reeves

Lieutenant Jim Reeves is the primary investigator in the Eric McGinness case.

Lieutenant Reeves is proud, good-natured, and well-liked by the residents of St. Joseph. He professes a strong desire to treat residents of both towns equally, regardless of race.

Throughout the narrative, it’s clear that Reeves feels the immense weight of the Eric McGinness case and would sincerely like to do right by the teen’s family and the community of Benton Harbor, but it’s also evident that Reeves is not prepared to fully confront the larger racial dynamics at play in the two towns. In one instance, he expresses frustration that someone “played the race card” in an interaction that Reeves did not perceive as racial. When the newspaper calls him a “bigot” in response to the altercation, it’s evident that Reeves is hurt by the accusation, and it’s clear he knows a bigot is something he doesn’t want to be. But he also seems to be more concerned by the idea of being perceived as a bigot than by having potentially done something bigoted.

Though Kotlowitz does not address this with Reeves outright, several of their interactions hint at this tension between them. The most notable example of this is in chapter 30, when Kotlowitz reveals to the reader that he has spoken privately with some of Reeves’s Black friends and colleagues. Reeves is sure they all agree Eric’s death was an accident, but the author reveals they, too, believe it could have been a murder.

Ruth McGinness

Ruth McGinness is Eric McGinniss’s mother.

Ruth is smart, accomplished, and driven, and she raises Eric in an environment that spans both sides of the river. Through her job, located in St. Joseph, she maintains many close relationships with white St. Joseph residents, and Eric grows up with ties to both towns. Because of Ruth’s ties to the white community, she struggles to contend with the idea that Eric could possibly have been killed by St. Joseph residents.

In the aftermath of Eric’s death, Ruth becomes somewhat withdrawn. It’s clear that her interactions with Alex Kotlowitz are painful for her. At times, the author speculates that Ruth might prefer not to know what happened—to mourn her son by remembering him as he was in life, rather than supplanting that image with one of him in death.

Toward the book’s close, Ruth reveals that she finally asked Lieutenant Reeves for a copy of the case file. She is, she notes, at peace, but when she is ready she will finally read the case file to get some answers.

Ted Warmbein

Ted Warmbein is possibly the last person to see Eric McGinness alive. The evening of his disappearance, Warmbein caught Eric breaking into his car and chased him for a while before giving up. Because of this, Warmbein was long considered the primary suspect in Eric’s death. When Eric’s body is found with $49 in the pocket, it confirms the connection—$44 had been stolen from Warmbein’s car in the break-in, and Ruth had given Eric $5 earlier that night.

Warmbein, shaken by the accusation and terrified of its potential ramifications, volunteers to take a polygraph test and passes. He also reaches out to the NAACP to help with the case and makes every effort to cooperate with law enforcement. Though no credible alternative narrative is ever established, law enforcement and the book’s author ultimately come to believe Warmbein, who seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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