River, Cross My Heart: A Novel
by Breena Clarke
Publication Date: Oct 01, 1999
List Price: $15.00
Format: Paperback, 245 pages
Imprint: Back Bay Books
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Parent Company: Back Bay Books
Five-year-old Clara Bynum is dead, drowned in the Potomac River in the shadow of a seemingly haunted rock outcropping known locally as the Three Sisters. River, Cross My Heart, which marks the debut of a wonderfully gifted new storyteller, weighs the effect of Clara’s absence on the people she has left behind: her parents, Alice and Willie Bynum, torn between the old world of their rural North Carolina home and the new world of the city, to which they have moved in search of a better life for themselves and their children; the friends and relatives of the Bynum family in the Georgetown neighborhood they now call home; and, most especially, Clara’s sister, ten-year-old Johnnie Mae, who must come to terms with the powerful and confused emotions stirred by her sister’s death as she struggles to decide what kind of woman she will become. This highly accomplished first novel resonates with ideas, impassioned lyricism, and poignant historical detail as it captures an essential part of the African-American experience in our century.
Barnesandnoble.com Review by Glenda Johnson
For new arrivals Johnnie Mae and her kid sister Clara, the Potomac is a seductive force. Wide and deceptively calm, the river attracts many visitors to its verdant banks. But beneath the benign surface, powerful currents carry the waters past all, colored and white, penitent and power broker. And, in Breena Clarke’s River, Cross My Heart, the siren call of the Potomac can shatter lives and break hearts.
Soon after World War I, the Bynums leave North Carolina behind, bringing their young family to Georgetown, in the nation’s capital, in search of greater racial tolerance and opportunity. On the cusp of adolescence, Johnnie Mae Bynum is responsible for her sister Clara’s care. Amid the hustle of Washington’s postwar frenzy and the bustle of the nascent African-American community, the girls find adventure. But in the nearby Potomac, they find trouble.
The danger signs are clear. Although it looks inviting, whispered stories say the Potomac has a long history of luring unsuspecting souls to a watery death. Despite the local legends, despite parental warnings, Johnnie Mae and Clara venture past the C & O Canal, beneath the Frances Scott Key Bridge, into the mouth of Higgins Hole. There, in a momentary and devastating lapse, one sister succumbs to the treacherous Potomac currents, leaving the other to carry forever the burdens of guilt, shame, and heartache.
When Clara’s body is recovered from the river, Johnnie Mae’s pain is acute and permanent, her sister dead and her own childhood abruptly ended. For the parents, too, Clara’s drowning creates an immediate void, and the accident resonates throughout the family. Author Breena Clarke painstakingly describes the repeated emotional injuries generated by such a sudden loss. With the passing of Clara, River, Cross My Heart becomes ever more the story of Johnnie Mae’s journey toward awareness and understanding.
Even in Washington, D.C., the physical and psychic home of America’s freedoms, grim reminders of racial inequity challenge the grieving Johnnie Mae. Why are the swimming pools segregated? Who are the omnipresent "they" the older folks refer to in their myriad conversations? Why is her mother constantly obligated to her white employers and the church? In addition to the normal angst of adolescence, Johnnie Mae bears the guilt and loss of Clara’s death. To Johnnie Mae, the drowning is especially galling, for she is a standout swimmer, and this ability proved insufficient when needed most.
Unfortunately, the profoundly difficult questions posed in this gallantly attempted novel are only partially answered. Nevertheless, Johnnie Mae’s dilemmas are infused with passion and compassion.
Haunted by her sister’s spirit, Johnnie Mae sees Clara in the oddest places. Swimming, once Johnnie Mae’s secure relaxation, is forever tainted. Attempting to find solace, Johnnie Mae embraces a classmate she believes is the reincarnation of her sister. Pearl, whose hair bears a striking resemblance to Clara’s, becomes Johnnie Mae’s confidante. In a manner that is tender and beautiful, Clarke’s portrayal of their budding friendship is one of the most memorable aspects of the book. Johnnie Mae protects Pearl from the taunts of the other schoolchildren but engages in little riffs that are indicative of sibling rivalry. She even convinces Pearl to defy the rules of the whites-only swimming pool by breaking in and taking a late-night swim. More revealing than the girls’ "acting out" are the layered family and community reactions generated by their behavior.
Clarke’s evocation of the "colored" Georgetown of yesteryear is fascinating. The varied cast includes Miss Ella, the medicine woman who has a concoction for any ailment, and Reverend Jenkins, the minister who helps secure a swimming pool for the "colored" children. One of the most vividly described scenes occurs when Johnnie Mae joins her mother and some of the other older women on a streetcar ride to Union Station. There, they meet the fancy Gladys Perryman, who has just completed her training at the Madam C. J. Walker School of Beauty. From the people on the street to those racing around Union Station, Washington is alive in Clarke’s panoramic vision and multilayered scope.
While River, Cross My Heart brims with metaphorical significance, particularly the many references to the Potomac, the novel would benefit from a more cohesive narrative. In her debut effort, though, Breena Clarke delivers a worthwhile offering. The extensive research into the early African-American community of Georgetown is resoundingly evident, as the streets come alive. Moreover, the confident manner in which Clarke explores Johnnie Mae’s inner turmoil will resonate for anyone who has had to cope with loss.