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Last Updated on July 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

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In The Other Side of the River, Alex Kotlowitz examines the death of a Michigan teenager and what this death says about race in the Michigan towns of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor—and in the United States in general.

The author begins by establishing the dangers of the area’s rivers and lake, noting that

Drownings are common occurrences around here, sometimes as many as three to four in a year. The area, after all, is surrounded by water. The St. Joseph River slices through the county, its languid surface hiding a sometimes tricky current. The narrower and shallower Paw Paw River feeds into the St. Joseph just upstream from the Coast Guard station; its mucky bottom once devoured a car that had swerved off the road, trapping the driver. And just two hundred yards downstream from the Coast Guard station, the St. Joseph empties into Lake Michigan, which at times can rise up in a fury, whipping eight-to-ten-foot swells onto the two piers. The force of those waves has swept fishermen and foolhardy teens into roiling water where even the strongest of swimmers have a difficult time staying afloat.

The author begins the book with the idea that the local rivers are dangerous and that drowning is a common occurrence in this part of Michigan. If drownings are so common, then why would the death of Eric McGinness be of such interest to Kotlowitz?

McGinness lets the reader know early on that his “interest in the death of Eric McGinnis borders on obsession.” He writes that he realized his research had become an obsession

after conducting over two hundred interviews, after scouring, countless times, the six-inch-thick police report, after listening to the opinions and reasoning offered by forensic pathologists, toxicologists, homicide detectives, and civil engineers, after navigating the St. Joseph River, after hanging out in bars and on basketball courts, and after playing and replaying in my mind the last moments when Eric was seen alive.

Not only is this a story of a young man’s life and death, it is a comment on race relations in the United States. Kotlowitz writes,

The events surrounding Eric’s death should ring familiar to all of us, both black and white: the confusion and the understanding, the despair and the hope, the disconnections and, indeed, the connections. With all that in mind, I set out to find out how Eric ended up in what is the towns’ strongest connection of all, the river.

While the racial divide between Benton Harbor and St. Joseph is stark, the two towns are also interconnected, not least by McGinness’s death.