RIVER, CROSS MY HEART

By Breena Clarke

Little, Brown. 245 pp. $23

Reviewed by Holly Bass

Breena Clarke's first novel, River, Cross My Heart, is a sweet read. Sweet like a glass of Southern iced tea on a hot day. Sweet like homemade ice cream from a hand-cranked machine, and just as rich.

Set in black Georgetown in the mid-1920s, the novel offers an extra treat for Washingtonians. One almost wishes the book came with a walking tour when its main character, 12-year-old Johnnie Mae Bynum, makes her way through the neighborhood's familiar streets. There's the whites-only pool on Volta Place that she desperately wants to swim in. And the annual picnic on P Street Beach. And the new pool for blacks that opens at Francis Junior High. Clarke did archival research on the area and its black residents, as well as drawing from her own family history; the result is a richly detailed sense of place and engaging characters that feel as familiar as next-door-neighbors without seeming stereotypical.

The novel centers on athletic, water-loving Johnnie Mae and her timid, 6-year-old sister, Clara, who dies in a drowning accident. Though Clara's death occurs at the outset of the novel, her absence haunts the rest of the story, as both family and community struggle to make sense of the loss.

A third of the way through, the novel reveals itself to be more coming-of-age tale than tragedy. The loose plot tends to flow without much tension, but the gentle pace offers a certain satisfaction, like a lazy inner tube ride down the Shenandoah. What drives the story along isn't the plot but Clarke's well-crafted use of language, equal measures lyrical and downhome. Clarke's description of the waters where Clara drowned reads like an elegiac blues poem: "The Potomac River has a face no one should trust. It is as duplicitous as a two-dollar whore. . . . Legends abound that the Potomac River is a widowmaker, a childtaker, and a woman-swallower. . . . The river has hands for sure at this spot."

Clarke also has a gift for rendering well-drawn characters, particularly colorful secondary ones. We meet Johnnie Mae's employer, Ann-Martha Pendel, whose fastidiousness with washing clothes contrasts with her libertine ways. "The careless way her breasts flopped underneath her shift and the slackness of her lips . . . were unmistakably the signs of low moral character," Clarke writes. "Even a child could see that." And soon we encounter Ella Bromsen, who lives next door to Johnnie Mae's Aunt Ina. "Most of Georgetown was inclined to think of Ella Bromsen as a conjure woman of the dangerous sort. A few women were sure that she was the one who had put a hex on their man and run him off. But Ella made her primary living by making and selling brooms."

After Clara's death, Johnnie Mae has strange visions of her baby sister, in the presence of the new girl at school, Pearl Miller. Convinced that this girl is Clara come back as a "bona fide haint," Johnnie Mae studies her. Each girl's fear of the other eventually gives way to a friendship in which both are freed of their demons. The shy, reticent Pearl becomes more outgoing, especially with the onset of puberty, which disturbs the more tomboyish Johnnie Mae. Their teenage escapades, like sneaking into the whites-only pool late at night, and even the separation womanhood brings into their relationship, strike a deep chord of familiarity.

River, Cross My Heart would make great late-summer reading, as you sit on the banks of the Potomac or a park bench along the canal towpath. As historical fiction, the novel offers a slice of not-so-distant life, in danger of being forgotten. As a coming-of-age story, appropriate for adolescents as well as adults, it gives readers a compelling main character, not an Ophelia in need of reviving but a strong-willed, intelligent, young heroine.

Holly Bass is a writer and performance artist based in Washington.