Summary and book reviews of River, Cross My Heart by Breena Clarke

River, Cross My Heart

by Breena Clarke

River, Cross My Heart
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  • First Published:
    Oct 1999, 245 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 1999, 245 pages

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Book Summary

A remarkable new writer makes her debut with a novel of tragedy and triumph in the life of an African American family in Georgetown, circa 1925.

Legends abound that the Potomac River is a widowmaker, a childtaker, and a woman-swallower. According to the most famous tale, the river has already swallowed three sisters--three Catholic nuns. Yet it did not swallow them, only drowned them and belched them back up in the form of three small rock islands. They lie halfway between one shore and the other, each with a wimple made of seabirds' wings.

The Three Sisters is a landmark. When you say the Three Sisters, people know you're going to tell about something that happened on the river to cause grief. And it isn't really clear whether it's the boulders or the river at that spot that causes the grief. Nobody in his right mind goes swimming near the Three Sisters. The river has hands for sure at this spot. Maybe even the three nuns themselves, beneath the water's surface, are grabbing ankles to pull down some company.

--From River, Cross My Heart

A remarkable new writer makes her debut with a novel of tragedy and triumph in the life of an African American family in Georgetown, circa 1925.

Eight-year-old Clara Bynum is dead, drowned in the Potomac River in the shadow of an apparently haunted rock outcropping known locally as the Three Sisters. In scenes alive with emotional truth, River, Cross My Heart 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, twelve-year-old Johnnie Mae, who must come to terms with the powerful and confused emotions sparked by her sister's death as she struggles to decide and discover the 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.

Chapter One

Dangerous ideas come to life and spread like sparks on dry twigs. It could have been Lula who thought of it first. Or it could have been Tiny or possibly Johnnie Mae. Somebody said, "Let's walk on down past there. It's cooler there." The small troupe—Mabel, Lula, Hannah, Tiny, Sarey, and the sisters Johnnie Mae and Clara—never actually decided to walk to the Three Sisters. It began as an idea that one or the other had and became accomplished fact without planning. The afternoon was hot and the advancing dusk brought no relief. Heat clung to the low-hanging branches of trees and permitted no breeze to stir them. The girls' raucous laughter was not muted by the shrubbery that lined the C&O canal towpath, and the seven pairs of bare feet simply walked westward to ward the Three Sisters.
Higgins Hole is a spot on the C&O canal where colored children used to gather daily in summer and clamber over debris in order to swim. Water still sluices southward through the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. River, Cross My Heart reveals the "hidden history" of one of the best-known neighborhoods in our nation's capital. Do you think there are neighborhoods in your town or city that have a comparable "hidden history"?

  2. The whites-only pool on Volta Place represents an ideal, a seemingly unattainable ideal, to Johnnie Mae. Do you think that at the end of the novel--despite the fact that the Volta Place pool remains a whites-only facility--Johnnie Mae has in some sense reconciled herself to segregation?

  3. Alice Bynum cannot swim. She recognizes that Johnnie Mae's attempts to save Clara from drowning far exceed what she herself would have been capable of. Do you think this knowledge influences Alice's feelings toward Johnnie Mae? Does Alice...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Washington Post Book World - Holly Bass

A sweet read...sweet like homemade ice cream from a hand-cranked machine, and just as rich.

San Francisco Chronicle - John Perry

A warm, graceful first novel...with a host of well-drawn and appealing characters...Clarke brings an affectionate eye and beautifully restrained prose to her fictional archaeology.

Baltimore Sun - Michael Shelden

A genuine masterpiece...full of grace and beauty and profound insights....It bears traces of Eudora Welty's charm and Toni Morrison's passion.

Chicago, Tribune - Sandra Scofield

Seldom do I find a novel that I can recommend to everyone....I'm delighted to say that River, Cross My Heart fills the bill.

Reader Reviews

sherri

river, cross my heart = fabulous
This novel was amazing! I can't quite see how some of you can say it was boring...I thought it was fabulous. I loved the emotional truths and sheer passion seen through Johnnie Mae.

Angie B.

This book was a great read! I felt as though I was living in the 1920's right with the Characters.

LASHAWNDA MINOR

THIS IS A GREAT BOOK. I RECOMMEND EVERYONE TO READ IT IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN HOW THE AFRICAN AMERICANS WERE TREATED DIFFERENTLY.

Anna Nicodemus

One of the best, if not the ultimate novel. Grabbed me from the moment I sat down on a Saturday afternoon. Highly recommended to anyone who appreciates good, excellent, worthy literature. Being an African woman, stuck in a world of apartheid, I ...   Read More

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