"explaining" character, 1959, Africa, book review, civil rights movement, coming-of-age confusion, difficult romance, Elaine Neil Orr, historical fiction, loneliness, moral conscience, North Carolina, racism, segregation, sit-ins, violence
Review: Swimming Between Worlds, by Elaine Neil Orr
Berkley, 2018. 382 pp. $16
Tacker Hart, former high school football star and would-be architect, has gone to Nigeria on a plum assignment for a private company, only to be summarily dismissed, practically kidnapped, and sent home to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The year is 1959, and momentous change is in the wind, though Tacker doesn’t sense it.
He senses little of anything, feeling adrift and angry and missing Nigeria, a place whose ways and atmosphere swallowed him whole. He’s barely put together that the Black society he admired in Africa would be forced to the back of the bus in his hometown. Moody and distraught, Tacker moves out of his parents’ house, persuades his father to let him manage one of two grocery stores Dad owns, and doesn’t know where he’s going, or why.
Two encounters give him purpose. First, he runs into Kate Morton, whom he remembers vaguely from high school, and picks up signals of common ground:
Still it seemed he was on vacation from the real point of living, a point he could only vaguely have described, though it had something to do with putting oneself at the edge of the world and staying there long enough to imagine something absolutely new. Outside, wind herded a curve of clouds at the far edge of sky and the air smelled of tobacco. The sidewalk was dark from the night’s rain and fall leaves lay sleeping on the pavement. Here and there morning light fell in dazzling sprees. Tacker felt the key in his pocket, cool and solid against his knuckles. He’d be happy to see Kate Monroe drop by again. She’d seemed as dazed by her present life as he felt about his.
Second, Tacker defends a Black customer, Gaines Townson, from a beating by several toughs in front of his store — Gaines has crossed an invisible line by shopping there. Subsequently, Tacker hires Gaines to work in the store, not realizing that his new employee has become active in the Civil Rights movement, participating in sit-ins at lunch counters. Nor does Tacker know that Kate, to whom he’s attracted more and more, distrusts the movement and Blacks in general.
Swimming Between Worlds stands out in several significant ways. Orr does a terrific job capturing how adulthood confuses the two prospective romantic partners. They’re both difficult, oversensitive, wary, aching from loneliness, and expert at driving people away. Kate, at least, has a more conventional excuse: Her mother, her sole surviving parent, has died, and Kate lives in her house, with its memories and societal burdens (her parents possessed status and therefore a code to live up to). As part of that legacy, the place contains letters her mother wanted her to burn. Big hint: Kate disobeys and is knocked for a loop.
Kate also has a suitor who’s doing his medical residency, and whom she’s not sure she wants to marry, yet doesn’t see what other choice in life she has. Marrying the doctor would give her social position and security but pigeonhole her as her husband’s reflection. I like how Orr portrays this dilemma while introducing Kate’s growing interest in photography, the pursuit that gives her something of her own, without overplaying it.
As you might surmise, the author shows you her characters’ flaws straight out. You lose patience with Tacker and Kate regularly, and nothing between them goes neatly. For instance, there’s a great scene when the medical resident shows up unexpectedly at a birthday party to which his rival has also been invited. Nor does the author protect her characters in other ways, for they suffer deep losses.
From a moral point of view, essential in a story like this, the sit-ins narrative doesn’t try too hard, just the right touch. Tacker’s no better than he should be, no liberal in hiding. It’s not immediately apparent to him how Blacks endure bigotry as second-class citizens, and how, if they seek ordinary pleasures he takes for granted — sitting down to eat at a lunch counter, for instance — they take their lives in their hands. Kate, too frightened even to contemplate what segregation means, argues with Tacker about it, though she comes around, eventually.
I’m less taken with Gaines’s portrayal. He seems one-dimensional, passionate about the cause and little else, as though he were merely a plot device. Indeed, he brings Tacker messages from the front lines and articles from Black newspapers, all of which prompt action. It’s also curious how easily Tacker, who has a quick temper that often gets him in trouble, tolerates Gaines’s jibes and lets him act as his conscience, his goad.
Then again, Tacker’s characterization in general sometimes feels stilted, particularly toward the beginning. The text often “explains” him, which strikes me as odd, given the care Orr takes with emotional resonance, as with her artful descriptions. Regarding the storytelling, though I like the Nigerian narrative in itself (and am reminded of my years in Africa), both the unnecessary prologue set there and one later section feel shoehorned in.
Still, Swimming Between Worlds is a thought-provoking novel, a human story full of feeling with an unexpected twist or two. It’s well worth your time.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.