This is hands-down the best book I have read by Pat Conroy, remarkable considering it is his second book, published in 1972 when he was 27. The Water is Wide is a memoir, like most Conroy novels, and it is based on his experiences teaching in a one-room school house on Daufuskie Island, S.C.
A few years ago, I would have told you that the South Conroy describes — the pitiable state of its education system, the political machinations, the injustices both slight and great — was a mercifully vanquished scourge, visible only in history books and dusty museums.
Then I became an education reporter at a small Mississippi daily newspaper, caught in the middle of a racial divide navigated not by violence in the streets but by broad, sweeping pen strokes, bangs of the gavel, midnight phone calls, and executive sessions.
The city school system was a disaster, rife with poverty, negligence, apathy, and illiteracy. Each year, the schools failed state test scores by appalling levels. Systems all around were being overtaken by the state, as will likely be the fate of that one. Slick “conservators” in nice suits will show up for a few years, draw large salaries, and accomplish nothing other than lip service to the traditions that continue to strangle the South.
The county school system was a shining example of desegregation’s unintentional legacy: private academies masquerading as public schools.
It would be a mistake to assume that all Southern cities are like this, that no progress has been made, that black children are doomed from birth, that racial inequality is the sole obstacle for Southern schools, or that a handful of do-gooders can transform decades of mistrust between all parties.
I will not divulge the end to Conroy’s story, but I will say that he dispels the notion of the white savior and the black savage, instead disrobing all of humanity for the reader to reflect upon.
If none of that strikes your fancy, you might be pleased to note that The Water is Wide is also a good story, easy to lose yourself in, which is sometimes all a person wants from a book.
And though I am a big fan of Conroy’s sometimes over-the-top, melodramatic prose, it is, for the most part, subdued in this early effort.
I enjoyed my time in Conroy’s classroom, and though I would have liked to have explored more of the island, it was still a memorable trip to a place I might otherwise never have seen.
The Water is Wide won a humanitarian award from the National Education Association and was made into films in 1974 and 2006.