The Water Is Wide

( 72 )


The island is nearly deserted, haunting, beautiful. Across a slip of ocean lies South Carolina. But for the handful of families on Yamacraw island, America is a world away. For years the people here lived proudly from the sea, but now its waters are not safe. Waste from industry threatens their very existence–unless, somehow, they can learn a new life. But they will learn nothing without someone to teach them, and their school has no teacher.É
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The island is nearly deserted, haunting, beautiful. Across a slip of ocean lies South Carolina. But for the handful of families on Yamacraw island, America is a world away. For years the people here lived proudly from the sea, but now its waters are not safe. Waste from industry threatens their very existence–unless, somehow, they can learn a new life. But they will learn nothing without someone to teach them, and their school has no teacher.É

Here is PAT CONROY’S extraordinary drama based on his own experience–the true story of a man who gave a year of his life to an island and the new life its people gave him.

Finally on audio, the moving story of a young schoolteacher given the task of educating the poor black children on an island off the South Carolina coast. 2 cassettes.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Reading PAT CONROY is like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel.”
Houston Chronicle

“A hell of a good story.”
The New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781441815071
  • Publisher: Brilliance Audio
  • Publication date: 8/10/2010
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 9 CDs, 10 hrs. 14 min.
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 5.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy is the bestselling author of The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides, Beach Music, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, My Losing Season, and South of Broad. He lives in Fripp Island, South Carolina.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Donald Patrick Conroy (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      San Francisco and South Carolina
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 26, 1945
    2. Place of Birth:
      Atlanta, Georgia
    1. Education:
      B.A.,The Citadel, 1967

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The southern school superintendent is a kind of remote deity who breathes the purer air of Mount Parnassus. The teachers see him only on those august occasions when they need to be reminded of the nobility of their calling. The powers of a superintendent are considerable. He hires and fires, manipulates the board of education, handles a staggering amount of money, and maintains the precarious existence of the status quo. Beaufort, South Carolina's superintendent, Dr. Henry Piedmont, had been in Beaufort for only a year when I went to see him. He had a reputation of being tough, capable, and honest. A friend told me that Piedmont took crap from no man.

I walked into his office, introduced myself, chatted briefly, then told him I wanted to teach on Yamacraw Island. He gave me a hard stare and said, "Son, you are a godsend." I sat in the chair rigidly analyzing my new status. "I have prayed at night," he continued, "for an answer to the problems confronting Yamacraw Island. I have worried myself almost sick. And to think you would walk right into my office and offer to teach those poor colored children on that island. It just goes to show you that God works in mysterious ways."

"I don't know if God had anything to do with it, Doctor. I applied for the Peace Corps and haven't heard. Yamacraw seemed like a viable alternative."

"Son, you can do more good at Yamacraw than you could ever do in the Peace Corps. And you would be helping Americans, Pat. And I, for one, think it's very important to help Americans."

"So do I, Doctor."

We chatted on about the problems of the island.Then he said, "You mentioned that God had nothing to do with your decision to go to Yamacraw, Pat. You remind me of myself when I was your age. Of course, I came up the hard way. My folks worked in a mill. Good people, both of them. Simple people, but God-fearing. My mother was a saint. A saint on earth. I worked in the mill, too. Even after I graduated from college, I went back to the mill in a supervisory capacity. But I wasn't happy, Pat. Something was missing. One night I was working late at the mill. I stepped outside the mill and looked up at the stars. I went toward the edge of the forest and fell to my knees. I prayed to Jesus and asked him what he wanted me to do in my life. And do you know what?"

"No, sir, what?"

Then Dr. Piedmont leaned forward in his seat, his eyes transformed with spiritual intensity.

"He told me what to do that very night. He told me, 'Henry, leave the mill. Go into education and help boys to go to college. Help them to be something. Go back to school, Henry, and get an advanced degree.' So I went to Columbia University, one of the great universities of the world. I emerged with a doctorate. I was the first boy from my town who was ever called Doctor."

I added wittily, "That's nice, Doctor."

"You remind me of that boy I was, Pat. Do you know why you came to me today?"

"Yes, sir, I want to teach at Yamacraw."

"No, son. Do you know the real reason?"

"No, sir, I guess I don't."

"Jesus," he said, as if he just found out the stone had been rolled back from the tomb. "You're too young to realize it now, but Jesus made you come to me today."

I left his office soon afterward. He had been impressive. He was a powerful figure, very controlled, almost arrogantly confident in his abilities. He stared at me during our entire conversation. From experience I knew his breed. The mill-town kid who scratched his way to the top. Horatio Alger, who knew how to floor a man with a quick chop to the gonads. He was a product of the upcountry of South Carolina, the Bible Belt, sand-lot baseball, knife fights under the bleachers. His pride in his doctorate was almost religious. It was the badge that told the world that he was no longer a common man. Intellectually, he was a thoroughbred. Financially, he was secure. And Jesus was his backer. Jesus, with the grits-and-gravy voice, the shortstop on the mill team, liked ol' Henry Piedmont.

Yamacraw is an island off the South Carolina mainland not far from Savannah, Georgia. The island is fringed with the green, undulating marshes of the southern coast; shrimp boats ply the waters around her and fishermen cast their lines along her bountiful shores. Deer cut through her forests in small silent herds. The great southern oaks stand broodingly on her banks. The island and the waters around her teem with life. There is something eternal and indestructible about the tide-eroded shores and the dark, threatening silences of the swamps in the heart of the island. Yamacraw is beautiful because man has not yet had time to destroy this beauty.

The twentieth century has basically ignored the presence of Yamacraw. The island is populated with black people who depend on the sea and their small farms for a living. Several white families live on the island in a paternalistic, but in many ways symbiotic, relationship with their neighbors. Only one white family actively participates in island life to any perceptible degree. The other three couples have come to the island to enjoy their retirement in the obscurity of the island's remotest corners. Thus far, no bridge connects the island with the mainland, and anyone who sets foot on the island comes by water. The roads of the island are unpaved and rutted by the passage of ox carts, still a major form of transportation. The hand pump serves up questionable water to the black residents who live in their small familiar houses. Sears, Roebuck catalogues perform their classic function in the crudely built privies, which sit, half-hidden, in the tall grasses behind the shacks. Electricity came to the island several years ago.

There is something unquestionably moving about the line of utility poles coming across the marsh, moving perhaps because electricity is a bringer of miracles and the journey of the faceless utility poles is such a long one—and such a humane one. But there are no telephones (electricity is enough of a miracle for one century). To call the island you must go to the Beaufort Sheriff's Office and talk to the man who works the radio. Otherwise, Yamacraw remains aloof and apart from the world beyond the river.

It is not a large island, nor an important one, but it represents an era and a segment of history that is rapidly dying in America. The people of the island have changed very little since the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, many of them have never heard of this proclamation. They love their island with genuine affection but have watched the young people move to the city, to the lands far away and far removed from Yamacraw. The island is dying, and the people know it.

In the parable of Yamacraw there was a time when the black people supported themselves well, worked hard, and lived up to the sacred tenets laid down in the Protestant ethic. Each morning the strong young men would take to their bateaux and search the shores and inlets for the large clusters of oysters, which the women and old men in the factory shucked into large jars. Yamacraw oysters were world famous. An island legend claims that a czar of Russia once ordered Yamacraw oysters for an imperial banquet. The white people propagate this rumor. The blacks, for the most part, would not know a czar from a fiddler crab, but the oysters were good, and the oyster factories operating on the island provided a substantial living for all the people. Everyone worked and everyone made money.

Then a villain appeared. It was an industrial factory situated on a knoll above the Savannah River many miles away from Yamacraw. The villain spewed its excrement into the river, infected the creeks, and as silently as the pull of the tides, the filth crept to the shores of Yamacraw. As every good health inspector knows, the unfortunate consumer who lets an infected oyster slide down his throat is flirting with hepatitis. Someone took samples of the water around Yamacraw, analyzed them under a microscope, and reported the results to the proper officials. Soon after this, little white signs were placed by the oyster banks forbidding anyone to gather the oysters. Ten thousand oysters were now as worthless as grains of sand. No czar would order Yamacraw oysters again. The muddy creatures that had provided the people of the island with a way to keep their families alive were placed under permanent quarantine.

Since a factory is soulless and faceless, it could not be moved to understand the destruction its coming had wrought. When the oysters became contaminated, the island's only industry folded almost immediately. The great migration began. A steady flow of people faced with starvation moved toward the cities. They left in search of jobs. Few cities had any intemperate demand for professional oyster-shuckers, but the people were somehow assimilated. The population of the island diminished considerably. Houses surrendered their tenants to the city and signs of sudden departure were rife in the interiors of deserted homes. Over 300 people left the island. They left reluctantly, but left permanently and returned only on sporadic visits to pay homage to the relatives too old or too stubborn to leave. As the oysters died, so did the people.

My neck has lightened several shades since former times, or at least I like to think it has. My early years, darkened by the shadows and regional superstitions of a bona fide cracker boy, act as a sobering agent during the execrable periods of self-righteousness that I inflict on those around me. Sometimes it is good for me to reflect on the Neanderthal period of my youth, when I rode in the backseat of a '57 Chevrolet along a night-blackened Carolina road hunting for blacks to hit with rotten watermelons tossed from the window of the speeding car, as they walked the shoulder of thin backroads. We called this intrepid form of entertainment "nigger-knocking," and it was great fun during the carnival of blind hatred I participated joyfully in during my first couple of years in high school.

Those were the years when the word nigger felt good to my tongue, for my mother raised her children to say colored and to bow our heads at the spoken name of Jesus. My mother taught that only white trash used the more explosive, more satisfying epithet to describe black people. Nigger possessed the mystery and lure of forbidden fruit and I overused it in the snickering clusters of white friends who helped my growing up.

The early years were nomadic ones. Dad's pursuit of greatness in the Marine Corps carried us into some of the more notable swamplands of the East Coast. I attended Catholic schools with mystical names like the Infant of Prague and the Annunciation, as Dad transferred from Marine base to desolate Marine base, or when we retired to my mother's family home in Atlanta when the nation called my father to war. Mom's people hailed originally from the northeast mountains of Alabama, while Dad's greased the railroad cars in Chicago, but attitudinally they could have used the same sheet at a Klan rally.

I loved the smooth-watered fifties, when I worried about the top-ten tunes and the homecoming queen, when I looked to Elvis for salvation, when the sharp dichotomy between black and white lay fallow and unchallenged, and when the World Series still was the most critical event of the year. The sixties brought this spindly-legged dream to its knees and the fall of the dream buried the joy of that blue-eyed youth forever.

Yet there were days that haunted the decade and presaged the tumultuous changes of the later sixties. By some miracle of chance, I was playing a high school basketball game in Greensboro, North Carolina, on the day that black students entered a dime store for the first nationally significant sit-in demonstration. I was walking past the store on the way to my hotel when I heard the drone of the angry white crowd. Word spread along the street that the niggers were up to something, and a crowd started milling around the store. With rolled-up sleeves and the Brylcreem look of the period, the mob soon became a ludicrous caricature of an entire society. The women had sharp, aquiline noses. I remember that. Everyone was surprised and enraged by the usurpation of this inalienable Caucasian right to park one's ass on a leather stool and drink a Coke. I moved quickly out of the area, following a Conroy law of survival that says that restless mobs have a way of drawing trouble and cops—although the cops would not have bothered me on this day, I realized later. It would be nice to report that this event transformed me into a crusader for civil rights, but it did not. It did very little to me.

I moved to Beaufort, South Carolina, in the early sixties, a town fed by warm salt tides and cooled by mild winds from the sea; a somnolent town built on a high bluff where a river snaked fortuitously. I was tired of moving every year, of changing home and environment with every new set of orders, of uprooting simply because my father was a nomad traveling under a different name and occupation. So we came to Beaufort, a town I grew to love with passion and without apology for its serenity, for its splendidly languid pace, and for its profound and infinite beauty. It was a place of hushed, fragrant gardens, silent streets, and large antebellum houses. My father flew jets in its skies and I went to the local segregated high school, courted the daughter of the Baptist minister, and tried to master the fast break and the quick jump shot. I lived in the security of a town founded in the sixteenth century, but in the world beyond it walked John F. Kennedy, the inexorable movement of black people coming up the road in search of the promised American grail, the television performances of Bull Connor, the snarling dogs, the fire hoses, the smoking names of Montgomery, Columbus, Monroe, and Birmingham.

Having cast my lot with Beaufort, I migrated to college seventy miles up the road. I entered The Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, where for four years I marched to breakfast, saluted my superiors, was awakened by bugles; and continued my worship of the jock, the basketball, and the school fight song, "Dixie." For four years I did not think about the world outside the gates. Myopic and color blind, I could not be a flashy, ascotted pilot like my father, so I opted for teaching and Beaufort.

At graduation I headed back down Highway 17 to begin my life teaching in the same high school that had spewed me forth several years before. But there was a difference this time: the purity of the student body was forever tainted. Thanks to the dastardly progression of law, black students now peppered the snow-white Elysium that once had harbored me.

From the Paperback edition.

Copyright 2002 by Pat Conroy
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Reading Group Guide

1. How might Pat Conroy have handled the conflict with Bennington and Piedmont differently? In what ways was the outcome a foregone conclusion?

 2. If Mrs. Brown was ashamed to be black, why did she teach on Yamacraw? Were there any instances when you thought Pat should have listened to her? 

3.To what extent have we moved beyond the racism and segregation of the 1960s, in society and in our schools? How far do we still have to go?

 4. Would today’s litigation-obsessed society allow teachers to do the things that Pat does for his students? Why or why not? 

5. How has modernization affected other rural or remote places like Yamacraw? 

6. Conroy uses some unorthodox teaching methods with his students. Are they effective? Why or why not? How would they work today in our educational culture of testing and accountability? 

7.Why is it so important to Conroy that the children see and experience the outside world? If you were to design a field trip for them, where would you take them and why? 

8.Trace the evolution of Conroy’s racial views and attitudes throughout the book. What are key events in that evolution? 

9. While he could and did have an impact on the children’s lives, what might he or others have done to improve the lives of the adults on Yamacraw? 

10. Politicians and the press often like to blame the ills of public education on teachers. To what extent is poor teaching responsible for those ills? What other factors are involved, and how might those be remedied? 

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 72 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 73 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 3, 2011

    Master Storytelling

    First of all, I need to say that Pat Conroy is my favorite author. His writing is so full of wit, honesty, intellligence and a genuine love of the English language.

    The Water is Wide is based on the year that Mr. Conroy spent teaching isolated, impoverished African-American children on an island off of South Carolina. He brings these wonderful children to life with his marvelous gift for storytelling. The children felt very real to me and I think Mr. Conroy did a terrific job with their dialogue. It's fascinating to see how much he and the children learn from each other through the course of the year. Working in a school office myself, I found Mr. Conroy's struggles and frustrations with the administration to be very interesting. He sincerely wanted what was best for the children and wanted them to learn as much as they could about the world around them, but the administration blocked him at every turn. I found myself cheering for every small victory he achieved and booing for the times those victories were taken away from him.

    I highly recommend The Water is Wide and any other books by Pat Conroy. He truly is a master storyteller.

    19 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 17, 2009

    Still Good After All These Years

    I highly recommend this book. I recently purchased this book and discovered that I had already read it, but after all, it's Pat Conroy (an incredible writer, and it had been a long time since I read it. I'm so very glad I did reread it. There are two story lines; one, a biographical story following his maturation process, and two, the story of teaching illiterate black children for just one year on Yamacraw Island. It's a very good read and one which makes you think a lot. His unconventional teaching methods and maverick ways are successful, and make him revered on the island, but a perceived problem to conventional, conservative, southern school board members.

    12 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 10, 2010

    more from this reviewer


    Following his acclaimed "The Great Santini" and "The Prince Of Tides" we have come to expect not only radiant prose but honesty and intriguing story telling from Pat Conroy. There is no disappointment whatsoever in his THE WATER IS WIDE, a memoir of the time he spent on a small South Carolina island attempting to teach the poorest of the poor who could neither read nor write. Making the task even more difficult was the fact that they spoke what is called Gullah, a type of Creole developed by the African American people living there.

    On Yamacraw (a fictional name for the island where Conroy stayed) the living is credibly stark, tantamount perhaps to a third world country. The children have nothing - of course, no television, radio or anything. One might think of them as growing up in a cultural void. Yet they're hungry to learn, even almost hypnotized by Beethoven's Fifth symphony.

    Upon arriving on the island Conroy is met by the school teacher, Mrs. Brown, a martinet if there ever was one. Her teaching methods consist primarily of striking the children or delivering verbal insults. Obviously, her methods have not been successful, so Conroy tries a much different, more relaxed approach - chairs in a circle, walks together. Eventually, his methods win over not only the children but the island's residents as well. However, Mrs. Brown and school officials remains opposed to him.

    Although in truth the island is much changed today THE WATER IS WIDE remains a heartwarming true story of what patience and understanding can accomplish. It is a poignant yet joyful look at our past.

    Highly recommended.

    - Gail Cooke

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 13, 2011

    So Pat Conroy

    For all teachers!

    5 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 27, 2011

    Takes Me Back

    Like Pat Conroy, I once spent a year teaching students in a made-to-fail situation in the mid-1960s. I was impressed not only by his ability to turn the experience into good literature, but by his creativity as a teacher, which has carried over to his skill as a writer. I also found myself feeling very sorry for his wife because it was obvious that his students were getting most if not all of his attention.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2009

    A must read for Conroy fans and educators everywhere.

    Pat Conroy's memoir takes us back to the earyl seventies and chronicles his early experiences as a teacher on the remote, rural, poor, and forgotten Yamacraw Island of South Carolina. An energetic, young teacher, Conroy braves the elements of the island and the waters that separate it from the mainlad each and every day with the goal of providing the poor, black children of the island a proper education. What he discovers is that providing these children with a picture of the world outside the island, and providing opportunities for real life experiences is just as important as academics. What he faces is the frustrating push-back from administration and the criticism of a world filled with racial prejudice. The reader will be consumed by Conroy's determination, enthralled by the lives of the characters, and awakened to the social and educational plights of children and families in rural America.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 11, 2013

    Pat Conroy wrote this story about his year of teaching in a scho

    Pat Conroy wrote this story about his year of teaching in a school for poor black kids on an island off South Carolina in 1969. A young man on fire to teach not just the basics, but to give kids a broader view of the world, runs into a culture of ignorance and neglect, and not just with the blacks, but the whites as well. The administration is woefully neglectful, since they do not really care what happens to the poor black children in their so-called school. The only other teacher in the school is a black woman who believes children need beatings and shame to learn and practices both on what seems to be a daily basis. Why she thinks that is beyond me. Surely she can see that the kids she sends on to Conroy after her years of "teaching" have advanced only in hating her and learning to beat on each other. Some cannot read or write at all, and those who can are nowhere near their grade level. I applaud Conroy's efforts to raise awareness of the world beyond the island by taking them on trips and exposing them to other forms of enrichment, but the time might have been better spent in teaching the basics of reading and writing. Perhaps one or two moved beyond the limitations of their environment, but without the basic skills of reading, writing, and math to build on, it would be extremely difficult. Conroy might have made a huge difference in the lives of many of the children had he been able to stay on for several years, but in his anger and frustration at the less than worthless administration, he butted heads and lost the battle and if he made any dent at all in the lives of those children, it had to have been minimal.

    Eunice Boeve author of Echoes of Kansas Past

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2012

    I rarely read

    I never was one to read that much because it is so hard for me to find books I actually like. This book captures it all! I say this is the perfect book to read if youre a picky reader!!!

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 27, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Highly Recommended

    The Water is Wide is beautifully written. A distressing, yet inspiring memoir. In the book, Pat Conroy writes an honest, candid account of his year as a teacher at Yamacraw, based on Daufuskie Island, off the South Carolina coast. Pat's early teaching position prepared him for yet another milestone in his courageous writing. From day one, at Yamacraw's school, Conroy seeks to reconcile years of disregard for every child's right: the right to a proper education. Conroy shares his shock, hopes and dreams for the children who are neglected and uneducated, which is sad, yet inspirational. As with Conroy's, Prince of Tides, I was drawn immediately into the unique story. I was appalled at the lack of education on the island and even more so, at the men in control who bent to no man to assist Conroy in his efforts to alter the offensive school system. It would take more than Pat Conroy's unconventional teaching methods to deliver the tools required for the system to meet their children's needs. The children on Yamacraw were part of our future; the island's school system investment let them down.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2012

    This is one of those books I think about a lot afterwards. I rea

    This is one of those books I think about a lot afterwards. I read this book a year ago and still find myself reflecting on it. I am a teacher and was inspired by his dedication to this students and ability to make connections in the hardest circumstances. Wonderful book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2015

    Couldn't finish.

    I know it was important to the story and the era but I couldn't take the "n" word in every other sentence.

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  • Posted March 6, 2015

    I am sure this is a wonderful novel, as everything I have read w

    I am sure this is a wonderful novel, as everything I have read written by Pat Conroy has been excellent. But when I tried to read it,

    I got a window that asked for my name and credit card that I used to buy the book. I entered the information, but the book would not load. So now I am out 10 bucks for a book that I am not able to read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 20, 2015

    A great read...highly recommend

    This book caught my attention quickly and kept it all the way through. My heart hurt for the students and teacher when they were faced with such prejudice and ignorance. I wish the ending could have been happier, but unfortunately all of life is not fun and flowers.

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  • Posted February 20, 2015

    Love Pat Conroy!

    I like this book better than Prince of Tides (which I loved).

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  • Posted February 20, 2015

    A good read!

    I enjoyed this book and I was not aware of the blight of isolated communities. I expect that is true in other places and islands.

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  • Posted February 13, 2015

    Rereading with the perspective of a 40 year career

    My first encounter with this book was back when it was first published. I was living in Ohio and was horrified that such a primitive situation could exist in modern society. Like Pat Conroy, I was full of youthful idealism and ambition; ready to demolish illiteracy and ignorance in any form. Clearly, we were soulmates.

    Having recently retired and moved to the Bluffton/Beaufort area, I decided to revisit this book and happily found Conroy's writing to be just as energizing as it was years ago.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2015

    Thomas to rue

    Actually over here rue. We need to talk for a new place because i am locked out of demonhunters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2014

    Highly recommended must read this book!

    I would read other books by this author.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2012

    I Loved This Book

    Unfortunately, I did not know of this book's existence until I saw the 1974 movie with John Voight. I knew I just had to read it, and in doing so, I feel that this is one of the most important books about education to read. The story of the children on Ymacraw Island is one of the most poignant I've read in avery long time.

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  • Posted July 15, 2012

    Worth a read.

    This was a good read but not one of his best. Beach Music is my favorite and he is my favorite author.

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