Monday, May 21, 2018

Swimming Between Worlds, by Elaine Neil Orr

Berkley Publishing Group, ISBN 9780425282731, April 2018

It's 1960, and Tacker Hart, a young architect, has just returned from a year and a half in Nigeria to his home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was there as part of a project to build high schools, and while there he fell in love with local culture. He made Nigerian friends. And he's been sent home in disgrace, for "going native."

Kate Monroe was a high school classmate, but went to Agnes Scott College. Unexpectedly even to herself, she's become a photographer. She has also, after the death of her and her brother Brian's father several years earlier, now nursed her mother through her death from cancer. She's living in the family home--she inherited the house, while Brian inherited "the cabin," and lives there--and trying to find her footing.

She and Tacker each, separately, encounter Gaines, a young African-American man who will have a significant impact on them both.
Tacker is currently managing the family grocery store, and he hires Gaines as store staff. Gaines walks home past Kate's home, and she's alarmed because, well, black people are scary to her. It's 1960, and the lunch counter sit-ins are about to start, and Gaines is going to be actively involved.

After a year and a half in Nigeria, Tacker already sees his home, and black-white relations, differently. Gaines opens his eyes even further. And when Kate starts shopping regularly in the old, familiar Hart's Grocery again, she and Tacker start to affect each other.

Tacker needs to find his way back to architecture. Kate needs to find her footing and her confidence as a photographer, in a time when women with independent careers are still not fully accepted. Gaines' challenges, while by far the most daunting, are in some ways the least complicated, at least in that he's not at all conflicted about his goals. He also, of course, has the most realistic grasp, of the three, of what he's trying to do.

We get some significant flashbacks to Nigeria, as we learn what Tacker experienced and learned. We get fewer, but still significant, flashbacks for Kate.

Gaines is the one we have to learn to understand almost entirely from the outside, and that feels right. As the only African-American among the three significant characters, he's the least accessible to the other two, in 1960 Winston-Salem, with the greatest need for self-protection.

I took several breaks while reading this, to absorb what I was reading, but it was well worth it. I was a child in New England when the events behind this novel were happening, and it's an alien piece of history for me.

Recommended.

I received a free electronic galley from the publisher via NetGalley.