Monday, February 7, 2011

Review: The Water is Wide

Author: Pat Conroy
Publisher/Format: Recorded Books 10.75 hours, 320 page equivalent
Narrator: Tom Stechschulte
Subject: Educational values/opportunities in rural South Carolina
Setting: small island off coastal south Carolina
Genre: fictionalized memoir
Source: public library

 I am a huge fan of Pat Conroy's stories of the south.  This poignant memoir tells of his early teaching career attempting to upgrade the educational experience of students in an all black school on poverty plagued Daufuskie Island (fictionalized in the book to Yamacraw Island).  After teaching high school for a year, and being turned down by the Peace Corps, "Mr. Conrack" as he called by the children, finds himself teaching 18 children in grades 4-8, several of whom cannot count the 5 fingers on their hands, or recite the alphabet, and who do not know what country they live in or any other elementary facts or skills expected of 4th graders in any other school in the state.

Conroy must throw away his playbook on how to teach, and devise new methods to inspire his children to learn and to love learning.  However, before he can do any of this, he must learn about them, and he must find a way to understand the local dialect known a gullah that the children speak. He discovers one young girl, Mary, is able to serve as the 'translator' for the class, so the adventure can begin.

Set in 1969, it is the story of a year of adventures, of triumphs, and of many failures and missteps.  It is the story of a small southern school district trying to come to grips with desegregation, and ignoring the needs of this heretofor 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' school.  Now with Conroy butting heads with the black principal who "teaches" grades 1-3 (mostly by wielding a huge leather strap), devising numerous games, field trips, and non-traditional methods to inspire his class, the school board is faced with a devoted educator they see as a demanding renegade who refuses to abandon a town, his students, or his principles.  Although he was himself the product of segregated Beaufort High School, and a graduate of the Citadel, his world view has expanded, and his championing of this group of neglected but needy children is a story both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Conroy's way with words is, as always, able to paint scenes, dialogue, and emotions in a way that transports his reader exactly where he wants to take them.  Although this book was originally published in 1972, I became aware of it when I read Conroy's My Reading Life a few months ago.  And since I am currently relaxing here on Hilton Head Island, in the geographic environs of the story, it seemed a perfect time to indulge my Conroy addiction.  It certainly didn't disappoint.

Edited 2/24/2011:  I was also given a chance to read this as an e-book by the publisher. They provided this informative video (it's the icon underneath the primary video with a child raising her hand in a classroom) as well as an updated cover for the ebook.


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