Sunday, October 29, 2006

Four girls walking down the road and somehow I'm instantly "Oh, God, what are white people going to do to these girls." Four and African-American and girls, like the people killed by a bomb left in a Birmingham, Alabama, church.

It wasn't exactly like that. It was one, in this case, and it was administrative, in Breena Clarke's novel "River, Cross My Heart."

They were walking to swim in the Potomac, where they were forbidden to swim. The Potomac was physically and spiritually treacherous. They were supposed to swim in the canal.

They swam in the Potomac and one of them, the youngest, drowned. She and her older sister lived catty-corner across the street from a "public" swimming pool that they couldn't use because they were African-American.

The older sister loved to swim. One of those things where she found the rest of herself. Being lost in swimming was maybe one reason she didn't notice when her little sister, a quiet kid, plopped from watching to being in the water and drowning.

I spent the book, which starts with the drowning, trying to make this child not die.

Like Reconstruction wasn't ended in a messy presidential election, so the South and DC weren't segregated in the 1950's because that had already been dealt with.

The family of the girl who died had come to D.C. from further South for a better life, which, till the child died, they got.

The girls who went swimming in the Potomac were three in their early teens and a little under fiver, who was supposed to be watched by her sister. The little one drowned when her sister didn't watch for just a minute. The sister dived for her again and again. The other girls found an adult who was able to bring up the body.

In the South, where they came from, it was usual for an older daughter to take care of a younger child a lot of the time. That wasn't usual in D.C. If all the young women had been doing it the South way, there might have been another young child to notice when the young child who drowned went in the water.

Or if they'd all been doing it the D.C. way, no young children would be with them.

On the other hand, maybe the Potomac wanted somebody that day and that wouldn't have made a difference. The author doesn't say that, but the feeling of what she says about the river leaves room for that.

The answer was to not swim in the Potomac, to swim in a swimming pool with a lifeguard like that one right across the street.

In the book, the older sister, basically a good kid, after the drowning breaks into the swimming pool building, trying in a way to change past history. In a way, she is also anticipating future history, since it's not that long till people will be demonstrating in the daytime to open such pools to all the people. A teenage doing a right thing in a way unlikely to work for herself or others.

Five sense plus more is life.

After her sister drowns, the older sister is pulled by two mores.

She sees her sister haint in water, in the boiling water on the stove in her home for example.

The haint is nothing like her placid, quiet sister. It is mad and mad and you come too.

The haint is insane with anger and invites the older sister to do something self-destructive. Would going mad be enough or would she also have to kill herself? Someone who swims as much as she could arrange her own drowning, consciously or unconsciously.

The other more than five senses thing is how much she loves swimming, and that's what saves her.

For her swimming is a thing that connects her to the great big universe in a deep joy way and she stays with it.


History shifts, partly because of the death of a little kid in the river who lived a 60 second walk from a swimming pool, partly because black people have been pushing all the time. Lack of visible demonstrations doesn't mean lack of pushing.

The older sister ends up inside the building she broke into in the daytime, running a race in front of people who love her and in front of people who feel that this particular teenager winning the race would profoundly diminish them. They're mad and mad.

During the race she meets the haint, swims through the haint, swims through the hate and is herself again, only more, because she's at the age where people are more every day.