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River, Cross My Heart

For new arrivals Johnnie Mae and her kid sister Clara, the Potomac is a seductive force. Wide and deceptively calm, the river attracts many visitors to its verdant banks. But beneath the benign surface, powerful currents carry the waters past all, colored and white, penitent and power broker. And, in Breena Clarke's River, Cross My Heart, the siren call of the Potomac can shatter lives and break hearts.

Soon after World War I, the Bynums leave racially restricted North Carolina, bringing their young family to Georgetown, in the nation's capital, in search of greater racial tolerance and opportunity. On the cusp of adolescence, Johnnie Mae Bynum is responsible for her sister Clara's care. Amid the hustle of Washington's postwar frenzy and the bustle of the city’s striving African-American community, the girls find adventure. But in the nearby Potomac, they find trouble. The danger signs are clear. Although it looks inviting, whispered stories say the Potomac has a long history of luring unsuspecting souls to a watery death. Despite the local legends, despite parental warnings, Johnnie Mae and Clara venture past the C & O Canal, beneath the Frances Scott Key Bridge, into the mouth of the Potomac River. There, in a momentary and devastating lapse, one sister succumbs to the treacherous river’s currents, leaving the other to carry forever the burdens of guilt, shame, and heartache. When Clara's body is recovered from the river, Johnnie Mae's childhood is abruptly ended. For the parents, too, Clara's drowning creates an immediate void. Breena Clarke painstakingly describes the repeated emotional injuries generated by such a sudden loss. With the passing of Clara, River, Cross My Heart becomes ever more the story of Johnnie Mae's journey toward awareness and understanding. Even in Washington, D.C., the physical and psychic home of America's freedoms, grim reminders of racial inequity challenge Johnnie Mae and her parents. Why are the swimming pools segregated? Who are the omnipresent "they" the older folks refer to in their myriad conversations? Why is her mother constantly obligated to her white employers and the church? In addition to the normal angst of adolescence, Johnnie Mae bears the guilt and loss of Clara's death. To Johnnie Mae, the drowning is especially devastating for she is an accomplished swimmer, though her abilities proved insufficient when needed most. Johnnie Mae turns for friendship to a new classmate, Pearl Miller, whom she believes is the reincarnation of her sister.

Clarke's evocation of the "colored" Georgetown of yesteryear is fascinating. In one of the most vivid scenes, Johnnie Mae joins her mother and some of the other older women on a streetcar ride to Union Station. There, they meet the fancy Gladys Perryman, who has just completed her training at the Madam C. J. Walker School of Beauty. From the people on the street to those racing around Union Station, Washington is alive in Clarke's panoramic vision and multilayered scope.

River, Cross My Heart brims with metaphorical significance, particularly the many references to the Potomac. The extensive research into the early African-American community of Georgetown is resoundingly evident, as the streets come alive. Clarke’s exploration of Johnnie Mae's inner turmoil will resonate for anyone who has had to cope with loss.