A young, enthusiastic student accepts a teaching job on an island of illiterate children.
I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.
My better half and I love about two thirds of each other’s books, and we avoid each other’s thirds. This causes friendly disagreements over choices. Now, we have what some might call a healthy library, so there is more than a lifetime of reading for each of us. A case in point is Pat Conroy’s memoir, The Water is Wide. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t find one of her favorites finds its way into my TBR pile, and I must confess to some squirreling away of my favorites in hers. Then my book club choose this Conroy for our book club. I was trapped, I had to give in and read this book. Now, deciding which authors to read or to avoid is a complicated process for me.
Conroy is a best-selling author, and he is noted for his novels set in his native South Carolina. River is an autobiographical story of his first year of teaching. He chooses an island off the coast of South Carolina, Yamacraw Island. Conroy’s description of the horrific lack of education turned my stomach. Conroy recites the abysmal list of the failure of the school board to take care of students merely because they were black. Conroy wrote, “‘Six children who could not recite the alphabet. Eighteen children who did not know the President. Eighteen children who did not know what country they lived in…’ I slammed twenty-three of these strange facts down their throats, hoping they would gag and choke on the knowledge. My voice grew tremulous and enraged, and it suddenly felt as if I were shouting from within a box with madmen surrounding me, ignoring me, and taunting me with their silence. My lips trembled convulsively as my speech turned into a harangue and the great secret I had nursed in my soul thundered into the open room” (266). Disgust at the treatment of these children is not powerful enough; shame is not powerful enough to brand this pitifully racist schoolboard consisting of seven whites and two African-American women. The placement of these two women was gerrymandering of a sort.
Not only were these children neglected and dismissed as “unteachable,” Yamacraw Island faced another catastrophe. Conroy writes, “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 inspector knows, the unfortunate consumer who lets an infected oyster slide down his throat is flirting with hepatitis” (5).
Conroy confesses to a period he was racist himself. While he was in high school, a teacher invited a group of students, including Conroy, to his home. The students teased the professor for being a n****r-lover. The professor “spat out a devastating reply” then “he played ‘We Shall Overcome’ by Pete Seger. I remember that moment with crystal clarity and I comprehended it as a turning point in my life: a moment terrible in its illumination of a toad in my soul, an ugliness so pervasive that it seemed my insides were vomit” Of course, it still took a while for Conroy to completely abandon his prejudices, he continues, “the journey at least had a beginning, a point of embarkation” (94-95). The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy is a story we must never forget. 5 Stars
Likely Stories is a production of KWBU. I’m Jim McKeown. Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!