Pat Conroy’s memoir The Water is Wide (1969) describes his year teaching poverty-stricken black children on Dafuskie Island, off the coast of South Carolina, near Beaufort. (He refers to the island as Yamacraw in the memoir). One can find much to commend in this forcefully written, enthusiastic, and heartfelt book, but it is dated. That’s nothing Conroy could have helped, really, because sooner or later everything becomes dated.
In part, the book is an account of how Conroy grew from a young boy educated in the ways of the white supremacist South to a young man concerned with racism, economic disparities, and social injustice. In part, the book also is about how his ambitions to help the children on Yamacraw Island were doomed by the segregationist mentality of other teachers, the schoolboard, and the surrounding country side. The Water is Wide is about his encounter with what real poverty means, the isolation it imposes, the disabilities on human development that it inflicts. At first Conroy tries to bring all of western civilization to the children, playing music for them by the great composers of classical music, exposing them to great works of art (Picasso gets him in some trouble), taking them on trips to the outside world: he arranges for them to spend Halloween in Beaufort and later takes them on a week-long visit to Washington. He works hard to connect with them, to recognize them as individuals. It’s never clear what he accomplishes, other than the relationships he develops with them and their parents. These relationships are important and meaningful. He is outraged by the decades of neglect that have denied the children a meaningful education and consigned them to limited lives.
Conroy tends to view the children through white paternalistic eyes. There’s a white savior at work in the narrative. He becomes increasingly aware of this as the book progresses. He’s profoundly shocked at the illiteracy and ignorance that afflict residents of the island. It takes him much of the year to come to realize that despite poverty and lack of education the residents do have a culture, a set of beliefs, that are important to them. He refers to, but not more than superficially, the problems of poverty that consign many of the adult residents of the island to alcoholism, violence, and subsistence level living. Although he exposes his students to the outer world, the outer white world of South Carolina and Washington, he never thinks much about what their situations will be after he leaves his teaching position (he is fired, partially because of disagreements with the superintendent, partially because of his teaching methods, and partially because he is regarded as an outside agitator). What I mean here is that he opens up to them the fact of the outside world’s existence, but then leaves them with no way of accessing it. Maybe a few children with ambition will move to success off the island, but we never know that. (In the year following his experience on Yamacraw, three of the children come to live temporarily with him in Beaufort.) In the last paragraph of the book, he basically throws up his hands in helpless despair over the future of the children: “Of the Yamacraw children I can say little. I don’t think I changed the quality of their lives significantly or altered the inexorable fact that they were imprisoned by the very circumstance of their birth. I felt much beauty in my year with them. It hurt very badly to leave them. For them I leave a single prayer: that the river is good to them in the crossing.”
What is important about his efforts to connect with and teach these children is that he makes the effort. He does connect with them, on a certain level, and they connect with him. One of the great moments in the book comes when one of the parents (actually, a grandparent) tells him how much the children like and talk about him. But, again, what comes of this? Conroy himself matures a bit, learns about his own shortcomings, how better to navigate the bureaucracies and bureaucrats of his world, how to stem his temper and his own bombast (bombast is an aspect of the book’s rhetorical style—the memoir is at its best in descriptions of people and of the island). The children remain, in fact and in metaphor, on the island.
The title points to a cultural divide that is an underlying foundation of the book—the divide between Conroy and the world of the children, the divide between the old and new south, the divide between the segregated world and the new order that is coming.
It’s depressing to read this book and to realize that many of the problems and issues Conroy describes remain unsolved in the present world.