Nearly everything important in 12-year-old Gabriella's life that summer of 1957 can be traced to the river. Without friends, her mother mysteriously absent, and her father, the general, treating her as if she doesn't exist, Gabriella turns to the river beside the Marine base where she lives in North Carolina. She's determined to learn to swim so she can make the general proud by showing him she's good at something.
At the river Gabriella meets Hawkins, an African-American steward in the kitchen of her father's quarters. Gabriella decides to trust Hawkins to show her a few swim techniques. He becomes her swim coach and a person she can talk with, even about the tragedy of the youth Emmett Till. Two years earlier, the fourteen-year-old Emmett was lynched and his body thrown into Mississippi's Tallahatchie River. Despite brutal beatings, Emmett refused to say what his racist murderers wanted: that he wasn't as good as them. At the river beach in North Carolina, Gabriella becomes close friends with Doyle, a teen and neighbor who plays Mississippi Delta Blues for her on his guitar. She tangles with another neighbor, Col. Perkins, a lurking presence with more than just a casual interest in Gabriella's growing friendship with Hawkins. And she feels a tide in her heart pulling her across the river to an old mansion, a tide as strong as a mother's love, even a deeply troubled mother who does not want to be found.If she can reach Mama, if she can show the general she's good at something, Gabriella will have the only thing she's ever wanted: her family together again. At the river Hawkins helps her find her strength. Emmett helps her find her heart. Yet as she swims toward young adulthood, it could all be lost. Emmett had been murdered for whistling at a white woman. Could her friendship with Hawkins endanger the tough Marine? It doesn't seem possible. Until a sudden storm on the river changes Gabriella's life - forever.
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“...I ask him if he knows the name Emmett Till.”
Poignant coming-of-age tale in racist-laden 1950s North Carolina
The unassuming power of the characters as they grow, physically and socially, through a tumultuous era.
When Gabriella and Hawkins come across the epitome of a racist in the backwoods of North Carolina, who also happens to be a police officer, the tension and unsung heroism in the scene is palpable. Oddly enough, it is a perfect blend of love, strength, bravery and patriotism.