Book Review: The Water is Wide

The book jacket says it all.

They didn’t know what an ocean was, didn’t know one continent, didn’t know a planet, didn’t know the Earth is a planet, didn’t know the Sun is a star. One kid thought the world was flat. All these things tended to make me believe I not
only had a difficult task here, but an impossible task. It seems as if they might be from outer space, but in reality, they were poor African-American kids living on a forgotten island off the east coast near South Carolina and Georgia in the 1970s. As a rebellious teen, living in the South where segregation was as American as apple pie, Pat Conroy was on a selfish quest. He would offer penance as a gentlemanly white man striving to help poor black kids.

In a shroud of arrogance, Conroy possessed enough smarts in his twenty-two year old bones that he would change the world as a high school teacher. As a recent graduate of The Citadel, Conroy spent two years in an integrated school, which fueled his egotistical spirit, and eventually propelled him to accept a unique position as the sole white teacher on the nearby Yamacraw Island. With no bridge to the mainland, Yamacraw is cloaked in a bit of hallowed mystery. Before the Civil War, the British governed the island as slaves tilled the land. After the war, freed slaves, known as Gullah people, returned to the island, and began to buy land for the first time. Farming the fertile land eventually led to hefty profits in the oyster-rich waters. With a population of 2,000, it was a prosper- ous time on Yamacraw, a picture perfect place to raise a family. But then the factories sent their waste downstream. The oysters died. The economies died. And the island people nearly died. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Pat Conroy initially voyaged to the island, there was barely a population of 60 people.
Armed with an unconventional method of teaching, Conroy charged head first into his new assignment. Tattered and torn textbooks were useless as his dozen-plus students couldn’t read anyway. Attempting to shake them from their secluded world of island life, Conroy engaged in stories. He told stories about a boat called The Mayflower. He talked about Pilgrims and progress. There were wars and bloodshed. The kids related to poverty, punishments and loss of power. The only other teacher in the school used beatings as her sole way of getting the kids to behave. From the Continental Congress to the space race, Conroy (affectionately or otherwise called Conrack by the students) painstakingly endeavored to bring his students up to speed on the history of not only America, but the world. He was met with equal parts frustration, resistance, and jubilation. Readers are captured by Conroy’s believable, yet alarmingly unsettling prose. The southern dialect is superb; the slang convincing, and the racial slurs sickening. There is redemption as Conroy’s character evolves from a racist to a man housing kids who just need a home, no matter the color of their skin. A field trip worthy of educational merits is just one of Conroy’s seemingly do-good schemes. There are no bake sale fundraisers and few parents to sign permission slips. It’s just Conroy, his wife, and a few unorthodox buddies bound to give the island kids a chance to see life beyond the island.
When Conroy is bombarded with obstacles and hurdles from the holier-than-thou ser- vants of the Board of Education, he delivers a Shakespearean soliloquy. There were facts and figures. Most of the numbers showed a shortage for the island kids; a shortage of resources, a shortage of readers, a shortage of a chance to chase the American dream. Did Conroy fail, or did the system fail? Dozens of situations in this book prompted questions from our club. What lasting impression did Conroy, this lone ranger of an educator, make in the lives of the Gullah children? And if he had played by the rules of social agencies and educational policies, would he have been allowed to stay with his students? Digging deep into history and even deeper into the shortcomings of American education, The Water is Wide deserves a place on high school and/or college reading lists. Consider the past. Consider the future. But, as Conroy did, be careful not to neglect the present.