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River, Cross My Heart by Breena Clarke - Book Review


River, Cross My Heart
Breena Clarke

Fiction-Net Rating 3 Star Rated Book

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Cover Story

For twelve-year-old Johnnie Mae Bynum, the thriving black community in 1920's Georgetown, Washington, D.C., was the place that nourished her and her family's dreams but after a shocking event one sweltering summer day, suddenly, tragically, nothing will ever be the same. Now Johnnie Mae must find her own way through the guilt and pain that threaten to tear her family apart and as she tests herself against the wider world - and her own restlessness - her determination to realise what she can become will ultimately change her life and community forever. Written with profound emotional depth, peopled with vivid characters, and offering a rich glimpse of a time and place rarely if ever seen, River, Cross My Heart heralds a powerful new American storyteller.

We Say

River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke is an admirable first novel. The book is filled with examples of African-American folklore and history. Breena Clarke takes her readers on a journey through the African-American community of Georgetown, Washington, D.C., during the 1920's when African-American children were still forced to swim in the river while the white children enjoyed the convenience of the community swimming pool. Racism and segregation are still a very real part of every day life.

Despite the restrictions placed on her because she is African-American, Clarke's main character, Johnnie Mae Bynum is a young woman filled with a certain fearlessness which she demonstrates proficiently in the water. Set during a tumultuous time in America's history, the reader is able to examine what it was like for the African-American community living in the more 'progressive north' as the fight for equality was going on. However, the social changes going on around the Bynum family fade into the background after the tragic events of one hot summer afternoon. The examination of how a family survives tragedy is not new to novels but Breena Clarke's characters provide insight into the lives of African American's living in America's capitol.

It is apparent early on in River, Cross My Heart that things will never be the same for Johnnie Mae and her family after that eventful summer day. Instead of an intense display of her grief, the tragedy causes Johnnie Mae's emotions to gradually build and gain momentum throughout the novel like a ripple. While Clarke does a good job creating believable characters in the Bynum family, I still felt that her development of Johnnie Mae could have been stronger. Johnnie Mae's character is elusive and difficult to understand and while that is inherent to her character, I still felt like something was being left out. I felt that the author's ability to convey such a character lacked a certain substance. By the end of the book, I still felt that I didn't understand what was really important to Johnnie Mae. I was unable to make a strong connection with Johnnie Mae and this left me with a feeling that something was missing.

When we are first introduced to Johnnie Mae and her sister Clara, they seem like any other siblings, determined to get into mischief and to fight the way that only sisters can. At first, the bond seems to be subtle but as the relationship is examined just like any other family relation, the bond is actually deeper than it appears. It is this connection with her sister that Johnnie Mae is forced to examine in order to overcome the tragedy that occurs on that summer day. Ironically, it is Johnnie Mae's mother, Alice that captured my interest. I felt her fight to provide her family with a better life was the more interesting story. Alice's relationship with Johnnie Mae was beautifully created and made me feel that in her quest to provide better opportunities for her children, Alice was walking a tightrope and tragedy was inevitable.

Overall, I didn't feel that this book was as good as many critics thought. Several reviews compared this work to those of Toni Morrison. Since Toni Morrison is one of my favourite authors, I would have to disagree. While Breena Clarke has potential, I did not feel that this work could be compared with any of Morrison's work. River, Cross My Heart lacked a certain depth that Morrison's novels have. While the story is touching and I felt that it was worth my time, I am unable to muster up an enthusiastic review for this book. I am sure that it is destined for great things since it is a Oprah's Book Club pick but I must admit I was a little disappointed.

River, Cross My Heart is far from being a terrible book and it did have its moments but overall, I was only moderately impressed.

Review by: Yumi Nagasaki-Taylor

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