Monday, May 28, 2018

Swimming Between Worlds, Elaine Neil Orr's portrait of the Civil Rights era

Written with candor and compassion, Orr’s second novel takes place in the conservative South in 1959 with short flashbacks to her home country of Nigeria. Through the intertwining stories of Kate Monroe and Tacker Hart, she illustrates the challenges of unlearning ingrained racism and how immersion in a new culture can reveal problems in one’s own backyard.

Both viewpoint characters sit at a crossroads. Tacker, a former high school football star, is back in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, pondering his career path. During the year and a half he spent in Ibadan on an architectural design project, he’d become good friends with his Nigerian coworkers and soaked up the Yoruba culture. Following his dramatic firing for “going native,” he takes a job at home, managing his father’s grocery. Kate, his former classmate, finds herself alone after her parents’ death. While debating a photography career, she learns a family secret that upends her world. After meeting Tacker again, she finds him attractive yet somehow changed, and he’s drawn to the prickly Kate.

The third protagonist is Gaines Townson, a young black man who Tacker hires and befriends, and of whom Kate is initially suspicious due to his skin color. Through Gaines, Tacker gets introduced to the ongoing civil rights struggle. This is the era of sit-ins at Woolworth lunch counters, segregated swimming pools, sexist attitudes, and racist attacks on African-Americans—all sharply rendered (and some of which sadly hasn’t changed). Fortunately, Gaines is more than a vehicle for the others’ emotional growth; he’s a well-developed character with a rich family life and his own future plans.

Against this backdrop of social unrest, their relationships with one another unfold in a tentative, realistic manner, as each decides what’s most important. Orr’s gracefully written, character-centered tale, showing how beliefs are formed and transformed, is both original and memorable.

Swimming Between Worlds was published by Berkley in April.  I wrote this review for May's Historical Novels Review, based on a NetGalley copy. Elaine Neil Orr had contributed a guest post about her on-site research in Nigeria and North Carolina to the blog last month.

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