Crossing the River Summary

Caryl Phillips

Crossing the River

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Crossing the River Summary

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Crossing the River is a historical novel by British author Caryl Phillips, first published in 1993. It focuses on a trio of black people during different periods in history, as they struggle with being separated from their native Africa. The main characters are Nash, an educated and religious slave who travels to Africa to serve as a Christian missionary; Martha, an elderly slave who escapes from bondage and seeks to travel to California where she’ll finally be able to live as a free woman; and Travis, a US soldier who visits England during the Second World War. The title serves as a metaphor for both death and deliverance, with the river signifying the struggles African people and their descendants face during their lives, as well as referring to the Atlantic Ocean over which slaves were taken from Africa to the Americas. Exploring themes of the diaspora experience, Christianity, morality, and the way different people react to temptation, Crossing the River was massively acclaimed, winning the 1993 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, as well as the Lannan Literary Award and being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It was later adapted into a BBC Radio drama.

The novel is narrated by a character known only as “The Ancestor”, who describes himself as an old man who was forced to sell his children into slavery due to famine, and the book later makes clear that this character is not a person, but the spirit of Africa. The book is divided into three sections, each telling the story of one of the main characters in chronological fashion. First is Nash, whose story is partially told through that of the religious, white slave-owner Edward Williams. Edward freed Nash so that he could go to Africa with the American Colonization Society to teach the Native Africans and convert them to Christianity. After losing touch with Nash, Edward receives a letter telling him that Nash has disappeared from the village where he was stationed. Edward boards a ship to Africa, and after traveling through the villages he finds someone who knows that Nash died of fever. Edward, who had genuine affection for Nash, is devastated, and his grief deepens when he learns that Nash had not been living as a religious Christian. Rather, he had taken a large collection of native wives and indulged in a variety of vices. This section of the book ends with Edward looking around at the hovel that Nash lived in, while the natives stare at him and wonder why this strange white man is reacting this way.

The next segment of the story focuses on Martha Randolph, an old woman who has lost her husband and daughter at a slave auction. Not wanting to die in slavery in Kansas, she decides to run away from her owners and seek liberty in the free state of California. It’s a long, hard journey and she frequently slows down her traveling partners due to her advanced age. In Colorado, she is left behind by the group because they’re worried they won’t be able to make it to their destination with her in tow. The Colorado climate is cold, and Martha is dying of exposure when a white woman offers her a place to sleep for the night. However, the cold has taken its toll on Martha, and when her host returns the next morning Martha has passed away in her sleep. The white woman wants to give Martha a Christian burial, but she realizes she doesn’t know her name. She decides she’ll have to choose a name for her, which is one last indignity after a life of them – Martha received a new name every time she was given to a different owner, and always hated it. She also didn’t believe in God, but her wishes were never respected, in life or death.

The last segment is told from the perspective of Joyce, a white Englishwoman who meets Travis, a World War II soldier. Although Travis is described as a brother of Nash and Martha, his story takes place a century later, and it becomes clear what the narrator’s true nature is. Joyce meets Travis at the store owned by her abusive husband. Joyce is frequently beaten by her husband, until he’s arrested for selling items on the black market during wartime. Joyce and Travis are immediately attracted to each other, and they have an affair. Joyce becomes pregnant, but Travis has to go back to the front and is killed in combat soon afterwards. Joyce is forced to give up their baby after he’s born because it wouldn’t be considered acceptable for her to raise a black baby. Joyce’s son, Greer, is raised in an orphanage and the chapter ends with him visiting his mother twenty years after she gave him away. The book ends with The Ancestor saying that, although his children all have died, they arrived at the bank of the river, loved.

Caryl Phillips is a Kittitian-British novelist, playwright, and essayist, and is considered one of the most acclaimed Black Atlantic writers. The author of ten novels and four plays, he is a Fellow of the royal Society of Arts, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a two-time winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. He is currently a Professor of English at Yale University.