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River, Cross My Heart: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club) Paperback – October 14, 1999

3.3 out of 5 stars 143 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Oprah Book Club® Selection, October 1999: Breena Clarke's first novel takes place in Georgetown in 1925, where a large and close-knit African American community took shape beneath the shadow of segregation. At the center of the story is baby Clara, who is swallowed by the Potomac as her sister, Johnnie Mae, cools off in the brackish water. It's the only place the girls can find relief--they're banned from the new, clean swimming pool the white kids use.

After Clara drowns, the river is never the same, and Johnnie Mae hovers on the edge of womanhood wondering if she'll be able to get past her guilt and emptiness. In an eloquent passage, Clarke writes, "Losing a loved one, a family member, is like losing a tooth. After a while, those teeth remaining shift and lean and spread out to split the distance between themselves and the other teeth still left, trying to close up spaces."

Bits of wisdom like this are the book's charm. Most remarkable are the church scenes, which Clarke renders almost purely in the give-and-take of voices: the booming preacher's sermon ("The people we love, we only borrowing them"), and the congregation's "Praise Jesus, Amen" exclamations. The author based her novel on stories passed down in Georgetown--tales of that area's first black churches, founded when people decided they wanted their own place of worship, and implicitly their own God. In church the novel takes flight. Elsewhere River, Cross My Heart suffers from clumsy, purple prose, and a plot that moves forward in labored fits and starts. Clarke painstakingly tries to re-create this past world, but sometimes it seems her duty to history is holding her back, bogging her down in period-piece details. In the effortless church scenes, history loses its gravity and is absorbed by grace. --Emily White

From Publishers Weekly

Debut writer and Washington, D.C., native, Clarke has written a novel as lyric and alternately beguiling and confounding as its title. It is the story of the drowning of a six-year-old child, and the tragedy's ramifications for her family and neighbors in the black area of Georgetown in 1925 D.C. Clarke's scene-building skills are the novel's strengths and occasionally its weaknesses, as each chapter is an intense set piece that sometimes provokes more questions than answers. The story is ultimately that of the effects of Clara Bynum's death on her 12-year-old sister, Johnnie Mae, who was babysitting Clara at the time she fell into the river. Johnnie Mae suffers guilt, fear and loss, endures dreams, imaginings and confusion as she sees visions of her sister everywhere: in a trauma-stung classmate who wears braids like Clara's, and the vapor from a boiling pot of green beans that resembles her sister's face. Against a felt, poignant and meticulously detailed panorama of the African-American (then called "colored") community of Georgetown, Johnnie Mae struggles to find her bearings, to cope with institutional and family expectations, and with puberty and race. Johnnie Mae ultimately derives strength from her element, the water, as she becomes a talented swimmer, but her parents Alice and Willie struggle with inextinguishable grief. From the first vivid description of the Potomac, liquid elements provide themes and narrative tension in this plangent coming-of-age story, granting the reader a necessary, if temporary, distancing from the blunt fact of a dead child. Indeed, Clarke's research about African-American Georgetown in the early 20th century revisits a time and place as intricate as any, but so remote from most memories that the historical details are fascinating footnotes to an era. While authorial asides are sometimes intrusive, this is a haunting story. Agent, Cynthia Cannell.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 245 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; 1st Back Bay Pbk. Ed edition (October 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316899984
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316899987
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (143 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,147,589 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Some people like to read. Some people like to think. And some people like to do both. River, Cross My Heart is a book that makes you think as you read. It is a touching story about a black family living in the south in the early 1900s. The family faces racism every day. The black children are not allowed in the town's white pool, and one day Clara, a black girl, drowns when she goes to a nearby river. The novel deals with Clara's sister, Johnnie Mae, and her emotions in dealing with death and racism. The book really makes you think. If Clara would have been allowed to swim in the town pool, she never would have drowned. I kept thinking this over and over in my head. Racism indirectly killed an innocent child. I loved how the book took me back to the times of when it took place. I felt the racsim in the book and related to the black characters in the story. The author, Breena Clarke, does a great job of letting the reader relate to the characters. I really felt like I knew Johnnie Mae. I fell in love with Johnnie's character right away. This girl is so strong-willed and brave. My favorite part of the book is when Johnnie Mae sneaks into the white pool one night to overcome her desire to beat racism. Johnnie is so courageous to do this. The way the author describes Johnnie helps the reader to really know her, predict her actions, and admire her. For those of you reading this review, get the book-that is, if you want to think about what you are reading. You could read the novel as a light story for pleasure, but you really should go in depth with your thinking. This book deals with serious subjects like death and racism-subjects everyone needs to be exposed to. Anyone can read River, Cross My Heart. But I reccommend it to those who will really think-about Johnnie Mae, about the river, about racism, about death---about life. This novel is enjoyable and well-written. Give it a chance. Dive into River, Cross My Heart!
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Format: Paperback
I felt this book needed more of a plot...some kind of resolution, something to let the reader know that this was not just some train-of-thought mumbo jumbo. Something! Something more!
What I did appreciate about this book was the way in which Clarke dealt with racism. I especially liked the questions that young Johnnie Mae kept asking when confronted with such blatant examples of inequality. It seemed like Johnnie Mae was asking herself the same questions that blacks must ask themselves today when confronted with such a hateful thing as racism. The fact that Johnnie Mae was relentless in her questioning put her at odds with the older, more experienced blacks, many of whom had almost resigned themselves to their place, it seems, until Johnnie Mae infuses them with hope at her swimming competition.
I liked Johnnie Mae's sense of self worth and bravery. I thought the interactions between Johnnie Mae and Pearl were funny and touching; although there were too few of them to make up for the book's shortcomings.
I think the author should re-write this book and concentrate more on the rest of Johnnie Mae and the other Bynums' lives.
Personally, I would have liked to see Johnnie Mae go to Howard University, like her swimming coach, or fall in love and marry Charlie. Aside from Johnnie Mae, Calvin was ripe with possibilities.
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By A Customer on January 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
Breena Clarke's first novel is like a broken rubber band gradually stretched by fingers that aren't aware of the possible sting that may eventuate if it breaks further or if it is let go. It starts off so slowly that one wonders where it may be headed and then it starts to gather momentum until it totally shifts and finishes about 358 degrees from where it started. What makes it work I think is that the characters develop. We see our young heroine mature and grow amongst the many people around her. Perhaps there are too many. I constantly had to reread sections to try and remember who people were but I found in the end the relationship that existed between our heroines - Johnnie Mae and Pearl - entirely satisfying. It wanders and at times mimics - poorly - Toni Morrison, but Clarke's work here is promising enough to warrant a reading of any further work she may produce.
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Format: Paperback
I wanted to like this book. The subject matter and time period are of interest to me and usually make fine fodder for fiction. It seems as if the book cannot decide what it wants to be. The reader has only a nodding aquaintance with the characters, and by the end of the book must find some reason to care about what happens to them. That is a shame. Some of the characters are so interesting. I'd like to see how they are all woven together into the fabric of the town and story. Some of the passages, particularly those involving the spirit of the drowned girl, approach a kind of magical realism that is so beautiful, but their connection to the broader story is hard to make. I'm anxious to read the author's next book to see how her writing style evolves.
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Format: Paperback
I have read River Cross My Heart, a novel by Breena Clarke.It is two-hundred and forty-five pages of heart renching brilliance. The novel's main characters include; Alice, Willie, Johnnie Mae, and baby Clara. The whole Bynum family displayed in there all but too human emotional rollercoasters. This book takes you inside the heartache and long healing process of a family after the worst devastation a family could have, losing a loved one. This takes place in the early 1930's in Georgetown,in Washington D.C. . This book gives you the knowlege of what it takes for someone to gain courage, control of their life, and to find the key inside themselves to gain all this. The best qoute in this book is,"For a few moments, she had been a woman-nearly-a grown woman like all the others."Pg95 The cover is a wonderful foreshadow of what you are about to read. A great significance in the novel, signifying the Potomac river. The title is an emotional feeling of one of the main characters Johnnie Mae. She feels that the Potomac river will always be in her heart since it played a role in her life that she will never forget. She will always have the memories. This book has become a new favorite of mine. The structure and theme made it exceptionally good. I would reccomend this book to anyone who likes reading about the younger times of America and also the wonderful insight on human behavior.
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