The Water is Wide, by Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy introduces himself in this book, published in 1972, before writing several much acclaimed and widely read novels such as The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and South of BroadThe Water is Wide is a reflection on a year of teaching middle school (1969-1970) on the culturally isolated Yamacraw (Daufuskie) Island, South Carolina. It’s a young man’s coming of age, reckoning with his military brat upbringing and the transformation of his traditional Southern White outlook to a mindset that was enormously progressive for that time and place. 

As a young teacher, Conroy was challenged by the island’s culture and economics. His African-American students were accustomed to regular use of violence with each other, their families, and their animals. His colleague, Mrs. Brown, accepted the traditional White expectations of low ability and poor outcomes for these kids and the prescription of rote learning and discipline by the belt. Although Conroy was supposed to be teaching middle school, most of his students were woefully deficient in even the most rudimentary pieces of elementary education – they couldn’t write their names, say the alphabet, or find the location of their island on a map. The islanders led a withdrawn lifestyle after the failure of the island’s oyster beds, but were reluctant to let their kids go to the mainland for their first experience of Halloween, one of Conroy’s early projects. The school administration treated the island as a distant distraction from the needs of the mainland towns. Conroy met these situations with the righteousness of a committed young man, tested various strategies of engagement, avoidance and confrontation, and predictably met with varying degrees of success.

Conroy brings a remarkable clarity and maturity to a fairly fresh set of experiences, and he does it with humor and palpable images of the island and its people. He has a clear eye for his own growth as he gained respect for his students’ ability to deal with their reality and battled the administration for resources and flexibility. He also has a handle on his own rigidity that inevitably ended his teaching career; he picked an unwinnable dispute over gasoline and maintenance costs of the boat he used to commute to the island, but he would never have been successful with a school bureaucracy that was managing system-wide integration.

He earned my respect for his effort and creativity to give his students an awareness of life off the island, where many of them would eventually have to live. His experience came several years before broad-based programs like Teach for America but it points to some of the ways such programs may be able to support teaching in disadvantaged communities. Conroy ends the memoir with a hopeful forecast of racial acceptance in South Carolina that has only been partly realized by recent history but his story echoes with hope and possibility.

— Bill Smith

The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess boys are brothers, Jim and Bob, raised in small town rural Maine. Jim is the older by five years, the golden boy, high school football quarterback, successful attorney, the shining example of what this small town has produced. Jim has a loving wife in Helen. Bob is affable and kind, but haunted enough by an unspoken-of accident that killed their father when he was four years old that he smokes too much and drinks too much. Bob’s marriage to Pam has ended and he is alone. Both have escaped Maine and live in New York. Bob is also an attorney, but a public defender.  Jim belittles Bob every time they are in contact. But Bob never reacts angrily or strikes back, either with words or with fists.

Yet there is another sibling. She is Susan, Bob’s twin sister, who has remained in their town of Shirley Falls. And it is in the crisis in Susan’s life that the story unfolds.  Susan has a troubled son, Zach, and he is in big trouble with the law. She calls her brothers for help.

There are others in Shirley Falls too. They are the Somali immigrants, welcomed by some, disdained by others, misunderstood by all. They dress differently, keep to themselves, worship in their make-shift mosque, speak only the most broken English. Their customs and ways do not fit the “melting pot” image of how immigrants are supposed to blend into the American culture. These Somalis have been deeply offended by Zach’s crime – he has thrown a pig’s head into their mosque.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is that the reader doesn’t really bond with any of the characters. Are any likeable? Well, not really, at least not through most of the book. Bob is the most likeable of the lot, but he  is such a wuss that he cheerfully accepts the verbal abuse of Jim and, as it turns out, of Susan. Jim is arrogant and mean. Susan is pitiful. Yet they and their story are compelling. I really cared about this family. How Strout has managed to do that is remarkable. This is a thoughtful portrayal of a family and how that family copes, or doesn’t cope, with tragedy and heartache. Strout has a keen eye for family dynamics, for the ways in which families create both walls and bridges. Her dialogue is rich.

As Jim’s life crumbles, as Bob’s life heals, as Susan’s and Zach’s lives move through this crisis, Strout unveils the bonds that are family despite everything. 

“What am I going to do, Bob?  I have no family.”

“You have family,” Bob said. “You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not too much of a drip now. That’s called family.”

And, ultimately, it is the Somali elder who saves Zach. Abdikarim, a man who has known both evil and fear, has seen not evil in Zach’s eyes, but fear. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, it is he who convinces the authorities to drop the charges against Zach. 

This novel is rich with nuance, both about families and how they function, but also about immigrants to the United States and the costs to them and their families as they blend and don’t blend into American culture. It is also rich with what and whom we don’t know. Bob and Jim have holes in what they know about each other and about their own past. The Maine natives don’t know the Somalis. Susan doesn’t know her son. The knowledge gaps are artfully revealed and ultimately that’s what links all the characters. As the prologue says, “Nobody ever knows anyone.”

Reviewed by Jeanie Smith

The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, by Simon Winchester

Few branches of science are so closely attributable to a single originator as geology.  Simon Winchester gives us a brisk walk through the life of William Smith as his observations of the English countryside grew from surveying for coal mining, canal building and agricultural drainage to a full mapping of its surface and subsurface geologic structures. 

The life story includes Smith’s humble beginnings and emphasizes how his lack of social standing, despite his competence in his surveying work, hindered acceptance of his scientific work.  He tried to offset this status by living above his means, with consequent times of financial failure and debtors prison. 

Recognition of his scientific work follows a similar arc.  Smith came to a sweeping understanding of the sedimentary layers of coal, limestone, chalk, and other soil and mineral formations that he observed in regular bands across England.  This understanding was enhanced by the correlation of fossils associated with different layers.  The consistent tilt of these layers also allowed him to predict their appearance underground.  This understanding was of obvious commercial value to the mining industry at that time and since to petroleum and other industries.  Smith finally compiled his observations in his “Map of the Strata of England and Wales,” which sold well, though Smith’s lack of social standing meant that the economic value of his work went largely to others.  Intellectual recognition of the originality of Smith’s work, and its importance to understanding the formation of the earth and the evolution of life, was contested for years.  Eventual recognition of Smith’s creative role in forming the science of geology came later in his life, giving a happy ending to the story.

Winchester’s telling of the story is quintessentially British in style.  He wields arcane vocabulary and scientific terminology in intricate sentences that are at times charming and at sometimes just dense.  Winchester makes scientific concepts understandable to readers willing to do some work, or skippable without losing the flow.  There are a number of helpful illustrations, but a shortage of maps of Smith’s whirlwind travels throughout England that would orient readers who don’t know that geography.  This book opened a new area of knowledge for most of our group, though some of us had touched bits of its subject matter.  It provided wonderful discussion material for our group.  We explored imprisonment for debt, how Smith avoided conflict with literal interpretations of biblical creation stories, the shift of thought during the unfolding of the age of reason and the industrial revolution and the individual genius of finding unique significance from observations seen by millions. 

— Bill Smith