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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

4.2 5
by Alex Kotlowitz

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Bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz is one of this country's foremost writers on the ever explosive issue of race. In this gripping and ultimately profound book, Kotlowitz takes us to two towns in southern Michigan, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, separated by the St. Joseph River. Geographically close, but worlds apart, they are a living metaphor for America's


Bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz is one of this country's foremost writers on the ever explosive issue of race. In this gripping and ultimately profound book, Kotlowitz takes us to two towns in southern Michigan, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, separated by the St. Joseph River. Geographically close, but worlds apart, they are 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.

Editorial Reviews

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

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
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.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.19(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.71(d)

Read an Excerpt



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.

Meet the Author

ALEX KOTLOWITZ is perhaps best known for his national bestseller, There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, which the New York Public Library selected as one of the 150 most important books of the twentieth century. Alex’s nonfiction stories, which one critic wrote “inform the heart”, have appeared in print, radio and film. A former staff writer at The Wall Street Journal, Alex has long been a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine and public radio’s This American Life. His stories, which one reviewer wrote “inform the heart”, have also appeared in The New YorkerGrantaRolling StoneThe Chicago TribuneSlate and The Washington Post, as well as on PBS (Frontline, the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour and Media Matters) and on NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition. He’s been honored with some of journalism’s major prizes: a George Foster Peabody Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the George Polk Award and twice a Columbia duPont Award.

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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 night....so 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.