The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America's Dilemma

The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America's Dilemma

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by Alex Kotlowitz

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In The Other Side of the River, Kotlowitz takes us to southern Michigan. Here, separated by the St. Joseph River, are two towns, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. Geographically close, they are worlds apart, a living metaphor for America's racial divisions: St. Joseph is a prosperous lakeshore community and ninety-five percent white, while Benton Harbor is…  See more details below


In The Other Side of the River, Kotlowitz takes us to southern Michigan. Here, separated by the St. Joseph River, are two towns, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. Geographically close, they are worlds apart, a living metaphor for America's racial divisions: St. Joseph is a prosperous lakeshore community and ninety-five percent white, while Benton Harbor is impoverished and ninety-two percent black. When the body of a black teenaged boy from Benton Harbor is found in the river, unhealed wounds and suspicions between the two towns' populations surface as well. The investigation into the young man's death becomes, inevitably, a screen on which each town projects their resentments and fears.

The Other Side of the River sensitively portrays the lives and hopes of the towns' citizens as they wrestle with this mystery--and reveals the attitudes and misperceptions that undermine race relations throughout America. In this gripping and ultimately profound book, Alex Kotlowitz proves why he is one of this country's foremost writers on the ever explosive issue of race.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In southwestern Michigan, the towns of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor face each other across the St. Joseph River. The first is postcard picturesque and white; the second is a black ghetto with a reputation as dangerous. In May 1991, the body of a black teenage boy, Eric McGinnis of Benton Harbor, was found floating in the river after he had spent the evening in St. Joseph. Was it an accidental death? A murder? Had he been fleeing from a crime scene? Had he been dancing with a white girl at a local club? Was a black gang involved? Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here) spent some five years examining the death as well as the communities on both sides of the river, and the result is a disturbing, compulsively involving human and sociological study. It is an informal, almost chatty book seemingly as disorganized and as free-ranging as gossip itself. It detours to cover an earlier shooting of a black teenager by a white policeman in Benton Harbor, a jailhouse hanging in the 1930s that may have been a lynching, and a political squabble that ousted a controversial black school principal, and looks into histories of the local newspaper and of the river itself. The author also covers dating practices in both communities, including the rebellious "wiggers," white high-school girls who go out with blacks. There are interviews with segments of both communities that range from judges to teachers to police officers to drifters to kids looking for something to do on a Friday night. Kotlowitz tries to solve the mystery of the body in the river and indeed comes up with a number of possible solutions, some more probable than others. More important, he presents a riveting portrait of a racially troubled America in the 1990s.
VOYA - Edward Sullivan
Although separated by only a river, the two small Michigan towns of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor are worlds apart. St. Joseph, with an almost exclusively white population, is a prosperous lakeshore community. Neighboring Benton Harbor is almost exclusively black, utterly impoverished, and crime-ridden. When the body of Eric Mcginnis, a black teenage boy from Benton Harbor, is found in the river on the St. Joseph side, the racial tensions between the two towns surface and nearly explode. Kotlowitz proceeds on a painstakingly thorough investigation of this incident, but has no better success than law enforcement officials in solving the mystery. Was Mcginnis murdered because he was black? It could have been suicide. There is a great deal of speculation among the black and white communities, much of it influenced by their suspicions of one another. Kotlowitz tries to use this true story as a microcosm for race relations in the United States and suceeds to a limited extent, but the grand ambition is never fully realized. Too much digression is a significant flaw, as Kotlowitz offers in-depth psychological profiles of every person he interviews. These digressions serve only to bog the reader down in too many details not relevant to the main story. The slow pace of the narrative will frustrate all but the most tenacious young adult readers. Kotlowitz also tries to accomplish too much in this book. He tries to give his readers both an intriguing mystery and a complex study of race relations, but fails to deliver. Had he focused on just one angle, this would have been a great book. As it stands, however, The Other Side of the River is a work of great potential unrealized. Maps. Appendix. VOYA Codes: 2Q 1P S (Better editing or work by the author might have warranted a 3Q, No YA will read unless forced to for assignments, Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12).
Library Journal
Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here) has produced another exemplary piece of investigative reportage that reveals the chasm between blacks and whites, rich and poor, in America. Two Michigan towns—predominately white, prosperous St. Joseph and predominantly black, poverty-stricken Benton Harbor—are separated by a river and years of mistrust, suspicion, and vastly differing life experiences. When the death of a black teenage boy found floating in the river remains unsolved, the polarized perceptions of blacks and whites toward the justice system are exposed. Kotlowitz's Herculean efforts to unravel the mystery is unsuccessful, but the telling of his pursuit of the truth is a compelling and suspense-filled story. And in the absence of definitive answers, the myths and perceptions created from the distinct historical experiences of the two communities become the truth that ultimately matters.
—Faye Powell, Portland State Univ. Lib., Ore.
School Library Journal
YA-An engrossing story of an unsolved crime that YAs will find both readable and fascinating. Although a murder mystery, this is really an in-depth examination of American attitudes toward race. The story is set in two small lake towns in Michigan that are separated by a narrow river and a wide range of conflicting opinions, fears, and emotions. A black teenager, Eric McGinnis, was found floating in the St. Joseph River in May 1991. When last seen, he was running down a street in the predominantly white town of St. Joseph. He had crossed the river that evening from 95% black Benton Harbor to attend a teen club with friends. Whatever happened afterward caused endless speculation on both sides of the river and old fears and assumptions surfaced. Many in Benton Harbor thought he had been pushed to his death by whites angered because was dating white girls. In St. Joseph, the Benton Harbor gangs were blamed. As the author investigated this multifaceted case, he looked at over 200 people and many different motives. The aspects of this baffling case are presented with sensitivity and impartiality, and while local atmosphere and nuances are accurate, these towns could be anywhere in America. A book that will make readers examine their own convictions about the troubling issue of race in our country.
—Catherine Noonan, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
New York Times Book Review
A Wall Street Journal reporter's historically placed investigation of a black teenager's death in Michigan scours up a cloud of facts and concludes in painful ambiguity.
From the Publisher
"I was impressed and enthralled...This book has suspense and style, and the delight of real substance presented with grace...a work of great narrative power, superb reporting, and profound empathy—in other words, a joy."—Scott Turow

"A riveting portrait of a racially troubled America in the 1990's"—Publishers Weekly (starred)

"A vivid American microcosm, a telling tableau of the way we are."—The New York Times

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America's Dilemma 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I rememeber that year, that club, that day I found out that my friend Eric was found. A group of us attended that club on the weekends. We considered it a break, a place where we could go and just have some good, clean fun. I grew up in Benton Harbor, and unfortunately at that time, there wasn't alot of safe places we could hang out in Benton Harbor. I was in school the day we were told that Eric was dead. My heart sunk. He was one of the sweetest people I knew. Suicide? That would be so hard to believe. Murder? I don't know...but what I do know is that even today, twelve years later...I find myself still thinking about Eric. And I am glad that even though this was a tragedy...Eric is not forgotten and there are people out there who still care enough to want to know what really happened that that his family and friends will be at peace. Thank you for caring, Alex.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Kotlowitz has done a splendid job in unearthing and exposing the racial tensions between the towns of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. As a former resident of Benton Harbor and its surrounding areas for about ten years, I can personally attest to some of the stereotypes and experiences of blacks mentioned in this book. Yet, the adverse treatment of blacks is not only limited to St. Joe, but can also be seen in the surrounding towns as far south as Berrien Springs. I have met some of the characters mentioned in this book on occasion and can say that the authors portrayal of them is not far off. Not only does Kotlowitz search for the truth about Eric McGinnis, he also attempts to provide and answer as to why there is a conflict between the two towns by presenting some of its history. Perhaps this history holds the answer for the mending of these two communities. Well done.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have to read this in 8th. Teachers fav...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
From the highly known author of "There Are No Children Here", Alex Kotlowitz transports his audience to Southern Michigan. Where the St. Joe River not only divides two cities geographically but also represents the racial division of skin color. The towns of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor didn't possess an ounce of care towards one another. That was evident. But they did not know that they're already strained relationship would reach a breaking point during the spring of 1991. A body of a young African boy was found floating down the river only to be found by local coast guard. Once this information had been released to Benton Harbor and St. Joseph that Eric McGinnis had been found dead floating along the river, thoughts and feelings would never be repaired. In "The Other Side Of The River", Kotlowitz portrays the racial inequality seen from coast to coast, city to city. As the cause of the boy's death is questioned, people from both sides of the river begin to form their own opinions of what happened that late spring night. Was it homicide? Did Eric fall into the river by mistake? Or does his death possess a secret that could set these cities ablaze? Through interviews, past records, and even personal experiences Kotlowitz delves past the mystery surrounding the boy's death and into the memories of the citizens of these two towns. Hoping to find the ultimate answer to his long awaited question he exposes the true reasoning of such a profound hatred amongst two towns. These towns bound by racial inequality have set the path for never ending tension. This tension between the blacks and whites has not ceased since the equality and integration era of 1960's. Prejudice has existed before Eric McGinnis' death and has remained after. And until the blacks of Benton Harbor and whites of St. Joseph come to peace, the river will remain a barrier to peace and equality.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In this book, Kotlowitz shows the world that even into the 1990s there was still racial tensions in cities. I knew that whites disliked African Americans even into the 1990s but I had no clue that in some cities racial tensions were as bad as they were in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. This book opens people's eyes today that may not have known what racism between races was like then. Today racism still exists but is nothing like it was then. Kotlowitz also goes into detail about other incidents of alleged racism. The book shows that not only did whites discriminate against blacks but also vice versa, when blacks discriminated against whites. Kotlowitz gives both sides of this tragedy; he gets opinions from people in both Benton Harbor and in St. Joseph. He blocks out his own opinions to write this book, because people need to know that tragedies like the death of Eric really happen and it can happen anywhere. This book opens people eyes, mind to the idea that racism is still alive, and is not going to go away soon. At first Kotlowitz came to Benton Harbor and St. Joseph to document the incident for the magazine but eventually stayed for seven years to try to help the police solve this case, but also took it a step further to write this book not only documenting the case but to show America about racism and it harmful effects. Before reading this book, I thought that this intense racism, died out in the late 1980s, but after reading this book it opened my eyes that racism is still alive and it made me question my own opinions. I recommend this book to everyone because everyone needs to know of the tensions of racism and its horrible effects.