River, Cross My Heart

River, Cross My Heart

by Breena Clarke

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Overview

The acclaimed bestseller—a selection of Oprah's Book Club—that brings vividly to life the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, circa 1925, and a community reeling from a young girl's tragic death.

River, Cross My Heart marks the debut of a wonderfully gifted new storyteller in Breena Clarke. When five-year-old Clara Bynum drowns in the Potomac River under a seemingly haunted rock outcropping known locally as the Three Sisters, the community must reconcile themselves to the bitter tragedy.


Clarke powerful charts the fallout from Clara's death 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; 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 is thrust into adolescence and must come to terms with the terrible and confused emotions stirred by her sister's death.

This highly accomplished first novel reverberates with ideas, impassioned lyricism, and poignant historical detail as it captures an essential and moving portrait of the Washington, DC community.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316899987
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 10/14/1999
Series: Oprah's Book Club Series
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 469,501
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.75(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Breena Clarke grew up in Washington, DC, and was educated at Webster College and Howard University. She is the author of two widely praised novels, River, Cross My Heart, which was a selection of Oprah's Book Club, and Stand the Storm. She lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt



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 abandoned locks of the old canal, no longer used for muledrawn barge transportation from Cumberland, Maryland, through Great Falls and Little Falls, under Chain Bridge, and down through Georgetown below M Street alongside the Potomac River.

Gnats and wildflowers are thick on the towpath beside the canal. Some fishers after carp and catfish drop lines from footbridges over the canal or from spots nestled in the shadow of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Water-loving trees lock boughs far above the heads of strollers on the path.

In the late afternoon on hot days, Johnnie Mae, her baby sister, Clara, and their playmates collected at Higgins Hole withtheir swimming suits on under cotton shifts. Other groups of boys and girls, older and younger, gathered there too. Some of the girls came just to stand around, but Johnnie Mae always stripped off her shift immediately, pulled on her swimming cap, and plunged into the water, stroking, cavort ing, and sponging up coolness.

Since they opened the public swimming pool for white folks only on Volta Place, right across the street from her aunt Ina's house, the pleasures of Higgins Hole were diminished for Johnnie Mae. In that public pool the water was so clear! Clara said it must be ice water. Clara said they must get big blocks of ice from the ice man on Potomac Street and put them in there. She was certain of this because the white boys and girls they saw through the fence and bushes surrounding the pool were always shivering.

The water at Higgins Hole, though not brackish, was not transparent like the water in the swimming pool on Volta Place. The canal carried the husky bouquet of decaying or ganic matter rather than the scent of chlorine. There were things growing in the canal that clouded the surface and entangled the ankles of swimmers. There were fish, and some times dead fish floated on the water's surface. Higgins Hole had begun to feel like a secondhand pair of shoes to Johnnie Mae. It was useful as a place to swim, but it was no longer special.

Below M Street, below Higgins Hole on the canal, the Potomac River looks calm and quiet on its surface but roils behind its hand. The Potomac River , brood sow for spots, rock, carp, and herring, is also a foam-bedecked doxy lounging against verdant banks, carving out sitting places and lying places and sleeping places all the way from Sharpsburg, Mary land, to the Chesapeake Bay . The Potomac River jumps mas sive rocks and roars downstream at Great Falls. Its spray shoots toward the clouds before falling quiet and running headlong toward Georgetown and W ashington and then proceeding past them.

This river is not one thing or another . It is both. The Potomac River has a face no one should trust. It is as duplicitous as a two-dollar whore. It welcomes company but abuses its guests by pitching them silly on small boats.

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.

The girls were not supposed to go in the river. Parents regularly warned their children not to swim there. Alice and Willie Bynum, knowing Johnnie Mae's fondness for swimming, had warned her off the banks of the Potomac. Nobody trusts the Potomac River. It's not benign like the aqua-glass swimming pool for the white children up on Volta Place. It is not plodding and dirty like the canal. It is treacherous. It is beguiling. Just walking along the riverbank can be dangerous if you've got a worry spot or a grief stone or an anger or resentment that you can't quite name.

At first the girls stood there. Then they sat among the tall weedy grasses of the littered bank. Much of what gets discarded in Georgetown ends up here, twisted and tangled among black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne's lace. Splintered planks with nails sticking out hide in the shin-high grasses. "Watch where you steppin'! Look out there!" Lula suddenly adopted a big-mama voice and broke the hypnotic silence that had brought them wordlessly to this spot.

"Clara, look where you walkin', girl! You hear me?" Johnnie Mae's voice was an echo of Lula's—a reflex exhortation—a pit-of-thestomach reminder that they had no business here and were tempting fate just by stepping, just by breathing. The earth closest to the river edge was mud. In twos and threes—Hannah and Tiny, Mabel and Lula and Clara, Johnnie Mae and Sarey—the girls sat at the river's edge and dangled their feet in the muddy, gunmetal green water. A rotting, downed tree branch covered with terraces of toadstools jutted out from the bank diagonally into the water and provided a place to sit. Rows of ants marched back and forth along its length. Clara sat cautiously on the low end while Mabel and Lula scooted along the log until they were several feet from the bank, swinging their legs out over the water. Hannah and Tiny climbed aboard the log between Clara and the girls on the outer end. Johnnie Mae and Sarey leaned against the log with their ankles mired in cool mud. Johnnie Mae thought about the glistening girls in the swimming pool on Volta Place. Those girls sat on the sides of their pool and only dangled their ankles in the water. The slimy, cool earth banked her anger.

Mabel's sudden shrieking as she belly flopped into the river jerked Johnnie Mae back from her thoughts. Lula followed Mabel into the river and the log shifted and bucked as she springboarded into the water. Johnnie Mae bounded onto the log and ran its length, maintaining her balance as perfectly as an aerialist. She swooped past Hannah and Tiny, nearly knocking them off as she launched herself as far out into the river as possible. The water was of uncertain depth here, but Johnnie Mae was not at all concerned with depth, just breadth. It was her foolish thought that the far bank of the Potomac was within reach of her strokes. And the water was cool, blessedly cool.

Clara sat quietly, watching Johnnie Mae and the other girls. Her quiet allowed them to ignore her . She was a constant appendage to her sister and seemed content to be so. None of the other girls noticed Clara moving along the log to the high end that jutted out over the water. Hannah and Tiny slid off the log into the water, causing it to shift.

Clara maneuvered herself along the log to get a better view of the other girls. They swam together in groups, weaving in and out of each other's arms. They dunked each other's heads and cannonaded each other by slapping the water's surface. Mabel, the oldest, pulled her wet swimming suit away from her chest to show the others her nipples, tight and wrinkled with excitement and cold. The girls giggled, they laughed uproariously, they didn't notice Clara.

Johnnie Mae was obliged to remember Clara. It had been her responsibility to watch Clara ever since Clara was a baby. But Johnnie Mae's mind was elsewhere. She was, right then, considering swimming straight across the river to Roslyn on the opposite bank. It didn't look too far. It looked like some thing she might be able to do.

Johnnie Mae did not hear Clara splash into the river when the rotted log collapsed. Johnnie Mae ducked her head under the surface of the river, her shoulders following, then her back and hips. Her flapping ankles churned the water's surface. She arched her back and pulled up to the surface with long, graceful arms. The splashing sound, she thought, was her own body slicing the water.

But it was Clara's body that slid beneath the water. The fingers of the undertow swooped her. The others did not see her go down. They looked at the place on the bank where Clara and the log had been, and now Clara and the log were gone. It was as though the log were a hobbyhorse and Clara was riding it. The canopy of leaves draping the bank seemed unmoved by Clara's sudden absence. The effect was of viewing a scene through a stereopticon: The first image contained Clara and the log, and the second did not.

Johnnie Mae dove twenty times before the others realized what had happened. Johnnie Mae rose to the surface, tread water, and screamed wildly. She filled her lungs with air and she dove again. The other girls grabbed her after it became clear that she would continue to plunge. The girls grasped arms around the struggling, screaming, exhausted Johnnie Mae and drew in close around her, like petals on a daisy. Johnnie Mae thrashed against them at first, then collapsed. They swam in tandem to the bank. A white ribbon off Clara's plait floated on the surface of the river.

Table of Contents

Reading Group Guide

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 forgive Johnnie Mae too readily?

4. Press Parker, who builds Clara's coffin, is so moved by the young girl's death that he donates the ornate brass handles he's been saving for his own coffin. What inspires this generosity? Have you ever witnessed--or committed--a similarly selfless act of spontaneous generosity?

5. What role does work play in the lives of the novel's principal characters? Is it significant that Alice Bynum has chosen "day work" over "living in" as domestic help? How does working with the laundress Miss Ann-Martha Pendel help determine the kind of woman Johnnie Mae will grow up to be?

6. The financial ruin of Alice Bynum's employer, Douglas St. Pierre, foreshadows the crash of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression. What effect do you think the Depression would have had on the Bynums and their Georgetown neighbors? How was your own family affected?

7. Johnnie Mae and Pearl are wary of each other for months after they first meet. How does each girl overcome her hesitation about opening up to the other? Have you ever had a relationship that began with such wariness yet developed into a close friendship?

8. Alice Bynum felt compelled to escape the humble surroundings of her North Carolina home in order to seek out new opportunities--for herself, and especially for her children. How is Alice's plight different from the plight of young people seeking opportunity in today's society?

9. Johnnie Mae Bynum is not Willie Bynum's daughter. How does this fact affect the relations between Willie and Johnnie Mae? Have you encountered situations in which stepparents have treated their own offspring and their stepchildren differently?

10. On the night of Clara's drowning, the men congregate in the Bynum kitchen, while the women gather in the Bynums' front parlor. How are these circumstances symbolic of the role that men play in River, Cross My Heart? Do the men in the novel take a back seat to the women? Why?

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River, Cross My Heart 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Just floating on the surface of this wonderful novel isn't enough. One must dive deeper, into the undercurrents of symbolism of a time in American culture where 'separate but equal' was anything but. The mighty Potomac River is used as the representation of our society at the time, calm on the surface, yet churning and pulling in dangerous, treacherous undercurrents in the murky depths below. The characters in the novel represent the many different perspectives present in the culture, ranging from Pearl's weakness and fear to Johnnie Mae's innate strength and deep longing to swim the tide in spite of its peril. The recognition of the sisterhood of all in the community, the beauty of the black woman, and the strength and resiliance of the of the family all flow together to create a portrait of a generation of women coming of age at the incipience of the civil rights movement. What a treasure!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I expected so much more from all of the characters. Nothing happened with any of them. It took me a month and a half to finish this book. I didn¿t enjoy it at all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was interesting but very slow. I wish the characters were more developed. I did not like the ending...enjoy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was very deep, and it's important that people understand that. It wasn't just sunshine and rainbows -- actually, it was anything but that. You have to understand that times were hard enough for Afro-Americans in the 1920s, but the problems in this book were on a personal level, as well. I thought the book was very good, and encourage others to read it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although I usually enjoy Oprah's picks, I was very disappointed in this one. The story started out to be interesting, and then lost focus. I kept waiting for something to happen...I wanted there to be a point to this story, some sort of resolution to the tradgedy, but there was none. I enjoyed some of the history regarding Georgetown during the '20's and some of the characters were interesting, although not developed thoroughly enough. I had to force myself to finish the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book started out with a tragedy and just never seemed to get anywhere. I was a little bored with the story line, although the cultural aspect of it was interesting it just didn't carry the book enough.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be for someone who likes to visualize the gaps left in novels. i like to read books where things don't need to be too figured out but this book was enjoyable although it might leave a reader wanting more. However, I think there was more to this novel than meets the eye. It first appears to be only shallowly skimming over what is really happening in this town and in the lives of the characters. I would have loved to get to know Jonnie May a little bit better but i suppose it all ties in with the total effect of the book. A certain vagueness leaves us wanting more but purposely i think the author didn't fill in the whole picture, so i commend her on being very breathy and only letting our minds imagine the full effect of pain and sorrow Clara's death brought upon the town. In this book she simply bounced us back to get only a glimpse of what that era in America was like and shed a little light into the darkness of the past.
readingrat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another coming of age story - not bad, but not as memorable as many of the others I have read.
estellen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
OK book - but one in a million. Not worth the hype.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was written well but the entire novel was depressing.........I hoped that the characters would find some good out of a sad situation but it never happens.......
Guest More than 1 year ago
I CONGRADULATE MS CLARK ON HER FIRST NOVEL BUT I GUESS IT WASN'T FOR ME.I FELT A NEED TO BE ENTERTAINED WHEN I OPENED THE FIRST PAGE. I WASN'T.I READ ON HOPING THAT THE LIVES AND THE SOUL OF THESE PEOPLE WOULD SOMEHOW BE UPLIFTED BUT NEVER WAS.I FOUND THE BOOK TOO DEPRESSING.I STRUGGLED TO FINISH IT.
Guest More than 1 year ago
¿Wow¿ is all one has to say after reading ¿River, Cross My Heart¿ by Breena Clarke. At first, reading this book as an English assignment seemed like a drag, but as I read more into the book, I got hooked. I wouldn¿t say this is the ¿greatest¿ book, but it is up there on my list. ¿River, Cross My Heart¿ allows the reader to venture into the lives of an African-American community during the early 1900¿s as it copes with the death of a toddler, who was not yet ready to die. The book starts off in Georgetown, with the Bynum family living a regular life during the early 1900¿s, a working family that also deals with discrimination as life goes on. Coming from a small farming town in North Carolina, they entered a world unknown to them, the city. Each person in the family had a job, Alice Bynum, the mother, was a maid, Willie Bynum, the father, worked in the city, and Johnnie Mae, the oldest sibling, worked for Ann Martha, the laundry lady, with little Clara Bynum trailing Johnnie Mae. At the age of twelve, Johnnie Mae was considered very reliable in trusting her with important duties, one of which was to look after her baby sister, Clara, who was six. During the hot summers in Georgetown, the children from the community swam in the Potomac River. On one fateful day, Clara, who was too young to swim, fell into the river. Johnnie Mae, dove in after her several times but was not able to find her in the murky abyss. Those watching this happen called for help, and soon the adults came. They created a search party, although it was clear that Clara drowned, but it was only assembled to give her a proper farewell to the living world. Breena Clarke follows on in the book on how this Georgetown community comes closer together during extreme situations. The whole community learns to deal with the death of this child who was too young to have done anything wrong. This book made me envious towards their community because in this day in age, it is hard to find a community which is as close as theirs, and also as caring. This is a beautiful composition written by Breena Clarke, and I hope you feel inspired after reading this book just the way I was. Buy the book, sit back, and enjoy!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The emotional intensity of River, Cross My Heart takes the reader by the hand and gently but firmly pulls them into the treacherous churning waters of segregated Georgetown's Potomac River and beyond. Young Johnnie Mae Bynam, a natural swimmer, braves the currents, while her family and neighbors around her struggle to survive. It is a story of family, community and coming of age through adversity.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was truly inspired by this book, it was supposed to be a boring, stupid, summer reading assignment and it turned out to be the best experience ever!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was expecting so much more from this book and I was left feeling empty. I'm a student in the Georgetown area so I was fascinated by the descriptions and their relavance, but that's where my interest ended. I kept waiting for the climax of the novel and it never came.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think that this book starts out with good intentions, but never reachs the emotional crescendo that I expected. I am disappointed that this was an Oprah selection. It lacks the heart that so many of the other books possess.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Normally I don't read classic or adventure books, but when I got this book to read from my mother, I couldn't put it down. After reading this book, I enjoy more stories like it. It is a good reading book for teenagers to adults.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had a difficult time reading this book. . .It had a lot of directions to go but you never endend up anywhere. I was Dissappointed that Oprah had this as one of her picks . . .
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was expecting much more from this book. I felt very little connection to the characters and failed to see how the town was so affected by this little girl's death. The ending was very disappointing as well. I did enjoy some of the history and tradition the author weaved into the storyline.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think the author had good intensions and gave alittle black history that I enjoyed. However it was a very slow read, and I wanted to put it down more than I wanted to pick it up. Unfortunatly, there was nothing to keep me in suspense. The ending was boring.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I personally felt that Oprah could have picked a better novel for her book club. The novel wasn't horrible, but it wasn't fantastic either. The novel goes very slow and at first I wanted to put it away after the first two chapters.I didn't like the ending at all.