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


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

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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 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

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
The publication of Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here was a national event giving voice to the heartbreaking struggle of two boys growing up amid the violence of Chicago's public housing. The book's impact made clear that Alex Kotlowitz's voice is one of compassion and intelligence, a voice to be trusted on the subject of race in America.

With the incisive, passionate prose of someone who traverses the line between "insider" and "outsider" in American communities, Alex Kotlowitz transports his readers to the banks of the St. Joseph River, a tributary that "lazily winds its way north from Indiana through the hilly cropland of Southwestern Michigan," and that, at its mouth, partitions two towns: the mostly white and prosperous St. Joseph and the primarily black and poor Benton Harbor. In late spring 1991, the river separating these two communities also bore a haunting cargo, the body of Eric, a black youth, by turns both child and adult, perhaps drowned, possibly murdered. "For these two towns, Eric has come to mark the divide, a reference point. To those in St. Joseph, Eric's death is proof that race blinds their neighbors to the obvious," writes Kotlowitz. "To those in Benton Harbor, it is proof that because of race, even the obvious is never what it seems."

Beautifully written and painstakingly reported, The Other Side Of The River sensitively portrays the lives and hopes of the towns' citizens as they wrestle with this mystery and others — and reveals the attitudes and misperceptions that undermine race relations throughout America. Thispowerfulstory challenges us to think about our own assumptions about race, no matter which side of the river we live on. This gripping and ultimately profound book takes us to the eye of the storm, a river brimming over with grief and confusion, rage and fear, proving that Kotlowitz is one of this country's foremost writers on the ever-explosive issue of race.

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
School Library Journal
Gr 10 Up-The true story of two cities in Southern Michigan (one white, the other black) separated by a river. When the body of a youth from the black town is found floating in the river, the uproar that surrounds his mysterious death exposes the gaping racial divide that haunts our nation.
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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307814296
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/4/2012
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 286,391
  • File size: 3 MB

Table of Contents

1. The Body 1
2. A Prelude 7
3. The Cop 13
4. Family 25
5. And Friends 39
The Shooting: A Tale in Four Parts
6. The Shooter 45
7. The Preacher 55
8. The Prosecutor 65
9. The Dentist 73
10. A Break in the Case 81
11. The Elk 91
12. The Girlfriend 97
13. The Other Girlfriend 105
14. Another View 115
15. Suspicions 121
16. The Aspiring Sheriff 133
17. Off the Record 141
The Race Card: A Tale in Three Parts
18. The Separatist 149
19. The Powers That Be 157
20. Fissures 169
21. A Connection 179
22. The Gangsta' 191
23. The Firecrackers, a Girl Named Teresa, and Other Assorted Matters 207
24. A Theory 215
25. The River 225
26. The Body 235
27. Another Theory 247
28. The Hanging: A Tale in One Part 255
29. Family 273
30. The Cop 279
31. Ripples--and Whitecaps 285
32. A Final Note 301
On the Reporting 309
The Cast 311
Afterword 313
Acknowledgments 319
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First Chapter



This much is not in dispute.

On Wednesday, May 22, 1991, at the day's first light, a flock of seagulls noisily abandoned their perches along the two cement piers jutting into Lake Michigan. Like rambunctious schoolchildren, they playfully circled above the mouth of the St. Joseph River here in southwestern Michigan, absorbing the warmth of the new day's sun. The seas were calm; the sky, partly cloudy.

Almost exactly one hour later, first-year Coast Guard seaman Saul Brignoni, hosing down a concrete walkway alongside the river, teasingly shot a blast of water at a covy of gulls resting on the embankment and spotted what appeared to be a muddy strip of driftwood floating twenty yards from where he stood. Minutes later, he received a cryptic radio call from the crew of a nearby dredging boat. "We got something out here you might want to take a look at."

Brignoni and two colleagues pushed off in their twenty-two-foot Boston Whaler and on closer inspection discovered that the flotsam was the bloated body of a fully clothed teenage black boy. Using a seven-foot-long boat hook, they carefully prodded the discolored corpse onto a large metal litter, turning their heads to avoid the putrid gases that rose from the body, along with the early morning mist from the river.

They then motored back to shore, where they laid the body, face down, on the wooden deck by their barracks and doused it with a nearby hose, cleansing it of some of the river silt. Three St. Joseph police officers soon arrived. While two asked questions of the Coast Guardsmen, making certain to stay upwind of the body, the third officer circled the corpse like a buzzard over its prey, snapping pictures with a 35-millimeter camera. After getting shots of the boy's short-sleeved shirt, a blue-striped baseball jersey that read MCGINNIS, Detective Dennis Soucek had his fellow officers carefully turn the body over. He knelt to get close-ups, focusing on the dead boy's stonewashed USED jeans, a popular brand, which were unbuckled and unzipped, exposing blue-striped bikini shorts. He snapped shots of the victim's upper body, the arms and hands still caked with mud; the skin, yellowish, almost green in places, was scraped away on the left forearm. He took photos of the boy's head, which was so swollen that the face looked separated from the skull, as if someone had stuffed cotton in the cheeks, the chin, the forehead, and every other part of the head. Only the ears retained their normal size, and in proportion to the other features seemed small and insignificant. The red lips puckered out like a fish's, and there were marks around the neck, two bloody lines that looked like rope burns. There were other matters the camera caught as well: a silver ring with a turquoise stone, a pinky fingernail painted pink, and unlaced high-top Nikes.

Nearby, Jim Dalgleish, a weedy-looking reporter for the Herald-Palladium, the local newspaper, turned his eyes from the scene, his worn Nikon hanging around his neck. Dalgleish, who, like other reporters at the small paper, doubled as a photographer, had heard over the police radio about "a floater" in the river and had sped over in his pickup. 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. Dalgliesh, who hadn't the stomach to look at the puffed-up bodies of floaters, only glanced at this particular corpse; he did snap some photos after it was placed on an ambulance stretcher, a white sheet covering it from head to toe.

The body was taken to Mercy Hospital for an autopsy. The incident was, the police believed, probably a drowning.

Like a swollen snake, the St. Joseph River lazily winds its way north from Indiana through the hilly cropland of southwestern Michigan, eventually spilling into the clear waters of Lake Michigan, where it is 450 feet across at its widest. It is here, near its mouth, that this otherwise undramatic chute of water becomes a formidable waterway, not because of its currents but because of what it separates: Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, two small Michigan towns whose only connections are two bridges and a powerful undertow of contrasts.

South of the river on a hill sits St. Joseph, a modest town of nine thousand that resembles the quaint tourist haunts of the New England coast. Vacationers on their way from Chicago--it's a two-hour drive--to the northern woods of Michigan stop here to browse the downtown mall, shopping at the antique stores, art galleries, and clothing boutiques. Its beach, just a short walk down a steep bluff from the downtown, once boasted an amusement park, but, reflecting today's more environmentally conscious world, now stands bare, its acres of fine sand and protected dunes luring families and idle teens during the summer months. The town is made up of both blue-collar families and professionals, many of whom work at the international corporate headquarters of Whirlpool, one of the area's major employers. In recent years they have been joined by affluent Chicagoans looking for second homes. For those in Benton Harbor, though, St. Joseph's most defining characteristic is its racial makeup: it is 95 percent white.

Benton Harbor lies just across the river. It is a larger town, with a population of twelve thousand, and although, technically speaking, it is the other sibling in the much-used name the Twin Cities, it couldn't be more different from St. Joseph. Benton Harbor is 92 percent black and is dirt poor. It is, as a result, shunned by the citizens of St. Joseph, whose children are taught from an early age that they're not to venture into Benton Harbor because of the gangs and the drugs. A state legislator once publicly warned visitors to lock their doors when driving through the city's downtown, whose empty movie theaters, potholed streets, and vacant stores stand as an inverted image of the mall across the way. And it is suggested from time to time that the local airport, just north of Benton Harbor, should be relocated so that visitors wouldn't have to drive through the wreckage of the town to get to St. Joseph. For the people of St. Joseph, Benton Harbor is an embarrassment. It's as if someone had taken an inner-city neighborhood--indeed, the typical family income is one fourth that in St. Joseph--and plopped it in the middle of this otherwise picturesque landscape. A further reminder of the relentless differences was put forward in 1989, when Money magazine anointed the Benton Harbor metropolitan area, which includes St. Joseph, the worst place to live in the nation. Everyone, of course, blamed Benton Harbor for the rating.

It is here, where the St. Joseph River opens into Lake Michigan, providing sustenance for spawning salmon and seasoned sailors, that this story begins. And it's here--at the beginning--where people began to disagree.

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Interviews & Essays

On Saturday, February 21, welcomed Alex Kotlowitz, author of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER.

Moderator from Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Mr. Kotlowitz. It is truly a pleasure to have you online. Congratulations on the new book!

Alex Kotlowitz: Well, thanks for having me!

Greg from San Antonio, TX: Did you enter Eric's case thinking you would be able to solve it? Were you always a reporter, or did you at times believe you were a detective?

Alex Kotlowitz: Well, let me answer the second question first... As a journalist, we're a little bit of everything anthropologists, sociologists, and at times amateur sleuths, so I don't know that I felt I had gone beyond my role as a reporter, though there were times, as there have been in the past, that I sometimes wondered if I shouldn't have become a cop. And in answer to the first question, there were moments when I did think I would solve the case, and in which I thought I was awfully close to being able to prove one way or the other what had happened to Eric, which in one way was very exciting as a reporter, but I can tell you, as a storyteller, the whole thing made me very nervous, and here's whyI knew that if I at some point solved the mystery behind Eric's death, that I would vindicate one community or the other, and that if I were not careful, it might become a very different story from what I had intended. On the other hand, I knew that if I did not solve the case, that I had the challenge of writing this story, in fact a mystery which had no clear resolution, though in the end, my feeling is that the strength and power of the story is in that ambiguity, because race today is all about ambiguity.

Marion from Clearwater, FL: Did the incidents described in your book receive national attention before your book came out? How did you find out about them?

Alex Kotlowitz: The answer is that the incident did receive national attention, but only because I had done a story on Eric's death for The Wall Street Journal when I was on staff there. Other than that there was no national press on his death. And I found out about Eric's death because in 1992, when I was writing for the Journal covering race and poverty for the paper, the riots in Los Angeles broke out after the Rodney King verdict, and I feared my editors would send me to Los Angeles. I didn't want to go. I don't like being in the center of the storm. In fact, what I love most about what I do is that I can venture into corners of this country in which people have little or no voice. Also, I don't fare particularly well under deadline, so having been familiar with Benton Harbor and St. Joseph and struck by the stark contrast between the two towns, I headed there looking for a story, and while in the library, going through newspaper clips, I was told about Eric's mysterious death.

Bethany from Rockland, NY: Your book is interesting to read, because the events are unresolved, and you were forced to present what took place in the town, and how people reacted, and what their opinions were, rather than describe a crime and place blame. But was there ever a point when you thought you would not be able to write a book because you didn't know the whole story?

Alex Kotlowitz: The answer is no, but I also knew that I faced a real challenge in trying to craft a story that did not have a clear resolution. And one of the books that I read, in fact, for some guidance was Tim O'Brien's novel IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS, in which he very deftly crafts a story with three possible endings.

Elise from Earlier this week we hosted a chat with the authors of A SHINING THREAD OF HOPE THE HISTORY OF BLACK WOMEN IN AMERICA. Coauthor Darlene Clark Hine was asked what she thought about the book, and she said that, as a Michigan resident, she was aware of the incidents described in the book. She said that the thing that struck her was "the differing perspectives between the two communities on the prevalence of racism within those communities" -- particularly that the residents of St. Joseph didn't think racism was a problem, whereas the residents of Benton Harbor believed it to be a very big problem. Could you talk more in depth about this? Does this coincide with what you learned while researching the book?

Alex Kotlowitz: Very much so. I mean, for those residents of Benton Harbor, as is the case for most of those in black America, they confront race on a daily basis. They think about it all the time, and there is in fact an ongoing vigorous debate on these issues, that is issues of race within the black community. While in St. Joseph, as is the case for most of white America, race does not impose on their daily routines, it does not pose any sense of urgency, and so not only do they not think about race on a regular, consistent basis, but they don't talk about it, let alone debate it. In fact, when I was reporting in St. Joseph, I had some people say to me, "Why are you trying to make such an issue of this?", or "Why are you writing such a negative book?" And again, I think such questions come from people who don't have to face the daily slights and injustices that those in black America must face.

Ginger from Durham, NC: Hi, Mr. Kotlowitz. Have you learned anything new about the situations described in your book since you finished it? Do you still return to St. Joseph and Benton Harbor?

Alex Kotlowitz: Let me be real honest -- when I finished the book, I wasn't certain how welcome I would be back in that county, but I have been surprised and heartened by the response to the book. Not surprisingly, those in Benton Harbor, the black community, have embraced the book. For them, I think I became a kind of vehicle to tell their stories. But, interestingly enough, and on an encouraging note, the book has been embraced by a large segment of the St. Joseph community as well. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a luncheon sponsored by the St. Joseph Rotary. Nearly 600 people attended, and what's more, the head of the two towns' Rotaries have formed a joint commission to talk about cultural diversity. There is a real conversation beginning in these two towns, which for me only supports what I found in my time in and out of these communities, and that is that most people, I believe, want to do right by each other but often don't know where to begin.

Robin Freeman from Santa Clara, CA: Dear Mr. Kotlowitz, I read your first book, THERE ARE NO CHILDREN HERE, last week, and I am currently reading THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER. I so enjoy your writing. You write about racial issues without that "I'm so liberal but so apart from you" kind of voice. That's the closest I can come towhat I feel about your writing. I am obviously not a writer! My question is about your time spent with Pharoah and Lafayette's family in the projects. How were you received by the other inhabitants? Did it take long to build trust? Were you ever trusted by those outside of the children's family? Also, how are the kids and their mother doing? Finally, what authors do you read? Thank you so much for your time.

Alex Kotlowitz: Let me answer the second question first, since that's what I get asked the most. I'm going to be a bit circumspect about Lafayette and Pharoah, only because I don't know that it's my place, at this point, to publicly talk about their lives and furthermore, I feel some sanctity about my friendship with them. But I can tell you what's generally known, which is that the family moved out of public housing shortly after the book came out, and Pharoah graduated from high school last June and has been accepted at a college for next September. In answer to your first question, as a journalist, just by the nature of the job, I am an outsider, and I was certainly an outsider in the Henry Horner Homes, where Lafayette and Pharoah lived, but many people, beyond the family, from residents to police, not only accepted me into that community but also trusted me with their stories. Though, of course, as is always the case, there were some who declined to be involved and whose wariness remained through the entire time I was there. But I am very respectful of people's sense of privacy and so ultimately, though it doesn't mean I am not persistent, will take no for an answer. As to the last question, I read a lot of nonfiction as well as fiction. Some of the contemporary nonfiction writers I admire include Melissa Faye Greene, Sam Friedman, Tracy Kidder, and more recently, Jon Krakauer. In terms of literature, I read some contemporary fiction, but read a lot written earlier this century and last century, from Steinbeck and Faulkner to G<&#252;>nther Grass and many of the Russian novelists of the late 19th century.

Chris from Craig, CO: What is your motive for writing about an untimely death of a boy -- are you simply bearing witness, or do you have a more complex impact in mind?

Alex Kotlowitz: My intent with the book was to find a way to write about race in a manner that would engage readers. Everybody comes to the issue of race with such strong predispositions, such strong preconceptions, and such strong emotions, and I knew that I needed a compelling story that would not only engage readers but would also poke and prod them to think about themselves and those on the other side of the river just a little bit differently.

Peter from Sag Harbor, NY: What sort of legal processes did you have to go through to get permission to access the police records? It seems as though Jim Reeves was willing to help by letting you access the files of evidence from Eric's case.

Alex Kotlowitz: I had to file a Freedom of Information Act request, which sometimes is only a matter of formality, as it was here, or other times, it can be considerably more contentious.

Nicole from Ft. Lauderdale, FL: I know that before you wrote THERE ARE NO CHILDREN HERE, you reported for The Wall Street Journal. What is your background? Did you ever envision that you would be doing what you are today?

Alex Kotlowitz: Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I grew up in Manhattan in a neighborhood that was diverse not only by race but also by class, and only in hindsight do I now realize not only how fortunate I was but also how unusual an experience I had, and so I know those years certainly helped shape my view of the world. Also, when I was 19, I dropped out of college for a year and spent a year working at a settlement house on the south side of Atlanta, in a neighborhood which at the time was the second-poorest census tract in the country. It was my first intimate exposure to that kind of deep urban poverty, and it was an experience which forever informed me. I didn't realize that I wanted to become a journalist or writer until after college, and then my first job was at a small alternative weekly in Lansing, Michigan, and while I did not particularly get along with the people who ran it, I did learn in the eight months I was there that this is what I wanted to do. After that I freelanced for five years for various magazines, for National Public Radio, and for the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. I desperately wanted tto work for a newspaper, and after being rejected by about 20 places, I was able to convince, of all places, The Wall Street Journal to hire me. While at the Journal, I was able to carve out a niche at the paper writing about race and poverty, and I was able to do so with the full support of the papers' editors.

Megan from Charlotte, NC: To what extent are you an outsider as a journalist? Yes, you observe, but don't you, as a storyteller, have some power to chronicle a life and maybe teach your audience something? Thanks for taking my question!

Alex Kotlowitz: Absolutely. My hope is that my writing will not only provide an aperture onto parts of our country that we otherwise might not venture, but also ultimately to inform people's view of the world. And while I am always an outsider, it doesn't mean that, in the end, I don't build very real and sometimes intimate connetions with the people I write about.

Jenni from Charleston, SC: Can you recommend other books on contemporary race issues in America?

Alex Kotlowitz: Sure, I would highly recommend a book by Melissa Faye Greene, called PRAYING FOR SHEETROCK, and Sam Friedman's UPON THIS ROCK. Both are works of narrative nonfiction. I also find the writing of Henry Louis Gates extraordinarily provocative, and of course there are writers like Toni Morrison, who won't let us forget our histories.

Jim from Boise, ID: Parts of this read like a novel, parts of this like commentary, parts read like I'm looking at your diary... How would you classify this book? Thank you.

Alex Kotlowitz: Well, I guess I classify it as a work of narrative nonfiction, and by that I mean that it's the work of a journalist, which means that it's all true. However, borrowing, if you will, the tools of a novelist, specifically in the crafting of story.

Polly from Pittsburgh, PA: We usually refer to the term "racism" as a majority's prejudice against a minority, for example, white racists discriminating against blacks. Then, when things are switched around, people typically call it "reverse racism." But isn't racism a two-way street?

Alex Kotlowitz: Certainly, but I will tell you that it is a word that I am very careful about using. In fact, I think I was successful in writing a book about race without using the word "racist" or "racism," and the reason for that is that I sometimes think we use it too freely and too loosely, and so when we really need it, when there's a moment, and there are moments, of racial hatred, we're left with words or language that have lost some their potency.

Bernie from Ann Arbor, MI: What do you think the most prevalent misconception about race relations in America is?

Alex Kotlowitz: I think the most prevalent misperception about race relations is that we no longer have a problem, or the feeling or the belief that race is not a determining factor in the lives of African Americans.

Rita from Glen Cove, NY: There is a great line in the beginning of your book, about how you have heard all the theories, "or so I think until I pick up one more stone, which reveals a patch of earth muddier than the last," so your story has no finite resolution. That's also a great metaphor for the general state of race relations in the U.S. Do you agree? I'd love to hear your comments!

Alex Kotlowitz: Absolutely, though some reviewers might take issue with that, but I think you are right, that the lack of resolution, or the ambiguity, if you will, in the story I tell, so mirrors the state of race relations today.

Pierre from South Florida: I apologize that this is long, but I couldn't help but be struck by the confrontations described in your book... But what struck me is how easily people take the types of attitudes held by the residents of St. Joe and Benton Harbor for granted. Not everyone wants to admit their prejudices, but in situations where there is a dramatic difference between social and economic status, attitudes emerge when people come into conflict -- and sometimes even just contact -- with one another. I grew up in a neighborhood in Florida where, although there wasn't any visible tension between blacks and whites, white people called the police if they saw a black person walking down the street if he wasn't obviously doing soemone's yard work. It unnerves and embarrasses me even to describe it, because I like to think things are better off than this. The economic divide between neighborhoods marked a racial divide as well -- that since I can remember, hasn't changed much over time, because even as the nature of towns evolve, the old attitudes are still stuck there. Do you see this improving anywhere? Is there any hope?

Alex Kotlowitz: Certainly there's hope. Without hope, I couldn't do what I do. And without meaning to sound too redundant, I have found hope in that most of the people I met in these two towns, I think want to do right by each other but don't know where to begin. One reviewer, I think aptly, called this the moral middle ground, and so it seems to me we've got to find a way to begin that conversation, to find those connections.

Ally from Tulsa, OK: You said that your book was almost entirely based on interviews. Did you tape these? Will there be a documentary filmed?

Alex Kotlowitz: The answer is no. I very rarely even use a tape recorder, let alone a video camera, and I did what I love to do, and I think do best, which is to write!

Moderator from Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. Kotlowitz! We hope you'll join us for you next book. How would you sum up your online experience?

Alex Kotlowitz: Well, I enjoyed it. I found the questions not only thoughtful but also provocative, and it's nice to be able to have this exchange with readers. They after all, are our lifeblood. Thank you very much for having me.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2003

    A Friend

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2000

    An Accurate Portrayal

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2013


    I have to read this in 8th. Teachers fav...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2012

    A Review

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2010

    A Review

    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.

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