The Other Side of the River Themes

The main themes in The Other Side of the River are racism and prejudice; contrast, opposition, and duality; and truth and ambiguity.

  • Racism and prejudice: The investigation of Eric McGinness’s death illuminates the racial divide between the towns of majority-black Benton Harbor and majority-white St. Joseph.
  • Contrast, opposition, and duality: The two towns contrast sharply with one another, and residents are polarized with regard to their opinions on McGinness’s death.
  • Truth and ambiguity: The investigation fails to uncover a concrete truth about what happened to McGinness, and Kotlowitz finally must accept the case’s ambiguity.

Themes

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Last Updated on July 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 863

Racism and Prejudice

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Throughout The Other Side of the River, Alex Kotlowitz explores themes of racism and prejudice through his investigation into the ambiguous death of Eric McGinness. Though the case is deeply emblematic of the divide, and serves to amplify the racial tensions in the community, Kotlowitz is careful to include critical background context to ensure the reader knows this is nothing new. Interwoven throughout the McGinness narrative are stories of a police shooting, a hanging, an attempted lynching, racially charged elections, and white flight.

In chapter 18, the author captures this mutual suspicion as conveyed through local myth:

In Benton Harbor, civic leaders pulled me aside to inform me that St. Joseph once tore down an empty junior high school building to avoid the slightest possibility of their having to take Benton Harbor students. . . . In St. Joseph, a former mayor confided to me in a conspiratorial tone that shortly after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, four to five hundred Blacks massed by the Bicentennial Bridge, preparing to assault their white oppressors across the way. Neither of these events, I discovered, had occurred.

Reflecting on the public perception of the death in chapter 4, Kotlowitz likens its impact on the area to the impact of the Rodney King beating on Los Angeles and on the viewing public elsewhere—there are people for whom the death will always be emblematic of a problem much bigger than those involved and for whom it will always be representative of a bigger truth about the world. Similarly, there are people for whom it will always represent something less: an isolated incident, ultimately forgettable, requiring no analysis about its broader implications.

In the case of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, that divide falls right along the color line: to the Black residents of Benton Harbor, Eric McGinness’s death is something more than itself. To the white residents of St. Joseph, it’s often something less.

Contrast, Opposition, and Duality

The towns of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor are a study in contrasts. This is evident most starkly along racial lines, but duality is demonstrated throughout the narrative along multiple axes.

The cities themselves are paired, even “twinned,” according to some sources, but exist as opposites of each other. They sit on opposing banks, serving opposing demographics. St. Joseph is affluent; Benton Harbor is destitute. St. Joseph is picturesque; Benton Harbor is in disrepair. In chapter 22, Kotlowitz notes, “If one spends time in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, one can’t help being aware of the turbulence of one and the tranquility of the other.”

Polarity is demonstrated socially, too—the residents of the area are almost universally polarized on the circumstances of Eric’s death, with few occupying the middle ground of professed uncertainty. For both Ruth and Eric McGinness, this goes a step further still, as duality is encompassed within the self. At times, Ruth clearly prefers not to know the details about what happened to Eric. Still, she has a copy of the police report at the ready, so the answers are close at hand. And Eric, Kotlowitz notes, is both too young to be culpable of much and too old to be innocent of everything—he occupies the dual opposing space between child and adult, just as he occupies the dual role of the singular individual and the universal symbol of injustice.

Truth and Ambiguity

As Kotlowitz and Reeves both continuously fail to overturn new information in their research, it slowly becomes clear that the story of Eric McGinniss’s death might not be concretely answered by the end of the text. In the absence of a conclusion, the author meditates on the relationship between objective truth and ambiguity, and what value each one might hold in a case like this one. In the abstract, he considers, the objective truth might not be as important as the lasting impact of the case. For Ruth, Excell, and Eric’s loved ones, by contrast, the truth is what matters most.

Kotlowitz’s evident frustration with this anticlimax mirrors his frustration with the case file itself, which is notably fragmented and unreliable—he finds evidence of stories that have changed over multiple retellings, not because of guilt but because of the fallibility of the human memory. He finds anecdotes and photos and ephemera that is illustrative but ultimately unimportant to the answers he is seeking.

In chapter 32, as he contends with the realization that his research has not, in fact, produced the settled narrative of Eric McGinness’s death that he was hoping for, Kotlowitz quotes Anaïs Nin:

There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.

This quotation encapsulates the unfinished nature of Kotlowitz’s inquiry and also functions as a meditation of sorts on the role the book ultimately fills. Rather than an objective report on the case, Kotlowitz has produced a fragmented impressionist portrait—a thoughtful collection of related vignettes that, when taken together, tell a story in feelings as much as in facts.

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