Crossing the River begins in the 1700’s as an African man is forced to sell his three children - Nash, Martha and Travis - into slavery. The novel then assumes a three part structure - a snapshot in time during the 1820s, the latter part of the 19th century, and finally the late 1930s-early 1940s. The three children from the beginning are symbolically represented throughout the novel with each of their voices distinct and individual as the reader follows the history of blacks from Africa, to the American West, and to Europe.
A slave named Nash Williams is freed from bondage and sent to Liberia to convert native Africans to Christianity in the late-1820s. Narrated partly through Nash’s letters back to his white master, the reader gains an appreciation of not only the brutality and desolation of slavery, but the power of freedom even when it means living in poverty.
Martha, an elderly black woman, is abandoned in Colorado while trying to travel with a group of black Pioneers to California. She grieves her lost child, and remembers the love of a man.
Finally, Travis - a black American GI - falls in love with a white English woman named Joyce during WWII. This section is narrated in a non-linear fashion from Joyce’s point of view and exposes the bigotry and obstacles to mixed marriage and relationships during that time in history.
Phillips’ prose is constructed beautifully - haunting and filled with alluring imagery.
The river wore a rutted frown where their slow progress had disturbed her sleep. To either side the somber banks, cluttered with trees, shrubs and vines, were pressed by a thick, brooding undergrowth that was heavy with years. As dusk approached, the heat still hung low like a ceiling above their heads. -From Crossing the River, page 66-
The novel’s plot is elusive because the story is not about these three characters really. Instead Nash, Martha and Travis are representative of a people as a whole. Phillips reveals the tortured search for home by a people whose lives were torn from their homeland. He doesn’t spare the reader the horror of slavery or the grief of those whose families were destroyed by it.
Then the auctioneer slaps hs gavel against a block of wood. I fall to my knees and take Eliza Mae in my arms. I did not suckle this child at the breast, nor did I cradle her in my arms and cover her with what love I have, to see her taken away from me. As the auctioneer begins to bellow, I look into Eliza Mae’s face. He is calling out the date, the place, the time. Master would never have sold any of us. I tell this to my terrified child. Slaves. Farm animals. Household furniture. Farm tools. We are to be sold in this order. -From Crossing the River, page 76-
Caryl Phillips is a gifted writer and in Crossing the River his talents are clearly on display. The novel is vivid and unique. It is largely symbolic, and so is not always an easy story to understand. This is a book which needs to be read two or three times, I think, to gain full appreciation of its message.
Crossing the River was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993. Phillips has authored numerous other works - his latest in 2007 is a novel titled Foreigners.