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.
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