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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 - Alex Kotlowitz This book is about the tense and fraught relations between two small towns in Michigan, and the impact of an African-American boy’s death on both towns.

The reason for the tension is because one town is predominately black and the other is mostly white. Predictably, the mostly-black town has a high poverty level, high levels of violence, low rates of education, and a fair amount of anger. The mostly-white town is mostly middle-class, has strong schools, low crime rates, and a lot of indignation.

When a young black man’s body was found floating in the river that divides the towns (yes, a river really does divide them), the two towns' responses were predictably divided. The black community believed (not without some evidence) that Eric had been murdered and a vast conspiracy had formed to cover it up. The white community, on the other hand, believes that Eric had been in the white town to commit a crime, and was killed accidentally while running away from the scene.

The author of this book is a journalist, which made the book much easier to read than I expected. Because of the subject matter, I’d expected the author to be a sociologist or anthropologist who would thump down a hefty literature review at the beginning, which I’d be forced to skip to get to the meat of the book (and which I certainly wouldn’t admit here). Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that the author leaps straight into the story, making no claims about his ability to draw parallels to American society at large, no attempts to philosophize about race-based tension in the US, and no effort to say something profound for posterity. Instead, as he says himself, he just wants to tell the story for the sake of the dead boy.

Because, you see, the child’s death remains unsolved. Due to a variety of mistakes, assumptions, bad timing, omissions, and other bad luck, no one knows why Eric died. The few people to see Eric the night he died differ so strongly in their details that a second theme for this book could be the absolute unreliability of eye-witnesses.

I found the book fairly easy to read, but a few things bothered me about the writing. In a book that is so focused on how skin color and community affiliation affect events and perception, I found it inexplicable that this author managed to overlook his tendency to assume the unmarked category.

For example, in one case in which a crowd of people gathers, the author doesn't specify whether they're black or white, a crucial detail in a book like this. Upon reading for context, I learned that they were white, revealing that this author, even in a book that revolves around skin color, had chosen to leave white as the unmarked category.

The book contains a fair amount of deep background on these two towns and their history of race relations. Additionally, the author explores some recent events in the towns that contributed to the aftermath of Eric's death. While important, these two levels of history--recent and ancient, so to speak--weren't presented in a linear way, which was kind of confusing. The story jumped around from recent school board elections to the 1920s, and back to the present.

The author of this book spent several years interviewing people from both sides of the river: family members, friends, witnesses, police officers, and community leaders. I was struck by how physically separate the lives of whites and blacks are in this community; whites simply don't cross into black areas, and vice versa.

I enjoyed reading this book, even if it was a slightly depressing reminder of how skin color still divides this country. The experiences of one group are so radically divorced from the experiences of another group that it's difficult for each to have any empathy for the other. Our backgrounds, perceptions, and opinions are so strongly formed by our skin-color-based associations that it's going to take a long, long time before we can, as a country, chisel ourselves out of those pigeonholes.

Recommended if you like history, depressing stories, unsolved mysteries, or have a grim fascination with the train wreck that is race relations in the US.