Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: "The Water Is Wide" by Pat Conroy

The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy

The Water Is Wide gets its title from a British folk song that describes a vast body of water separating two peoples. The water is difficult to cross without a boat, or someone acting as a bridge to bring the two groups together. The poem resonated with author Pat Conroy, who spent a year during the Civil Rights era teaching Gullah children, descendants of African-American slaves, on an island off the coast of South Carolina. His book is a fictionalized account of his experience, with the original Daufuskie Island dubbed Yamacraw, where he commuted to work by boat.

The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy

Conroy was an idealist, motivated by white guilt and liberal altruism, but he soon learns entrenched cultures are painfully slow to change. The children of Yamacraw have appallingly deficient pre-school years, most not knowing the alphabet or how to count. They were not exposed to standard English, cultural experiences beyond their island, or even swimming lessons essential for anyone living near water. Teaching them required creative methods, so Conroy employs music, field trips and especially humor. His sarcastic wit carries over into his relationships with Administrators, like his statement, "That night I fired off a rather angry, self-righteous letter to Dr. Piedmont telling him that his cute little schoolhouse on Yamacraw was not worth a pound of cow dung."

The families on Yamacraw are very superstitious, which Conroy finds quite amusing. He particularly mentions a former teacher at the school named Miss Glover, who is a practitioner of voodooism. He promises to relate some stories later in the book, but apparently forgets to include any, leaving the reader not a little disappointed.

The only other teacher at the little school is Mrs. Brown, a caricature of a black person of the times, with expectations so low the children don't have to accomplish anything to meet them. She is unsettlingly proud that she is not from the island, is part Indian and was educated at a private school in Georgia. She feels superior to the locals and outrageously abuses her students verbally and physically.  She is a tragic figure, a traitor to her own people, and loyal to whites who want to preserve racial apartheid. To the reader she appears to be a victim of generational curses handed down from the slave culture.

On the other hand, Ezra Bennington is a white Deputy Superintendent who also keeps the children in a never-ending cycle of ignorance and poverty by his failure to understand them. He appears to be a likeable man that cares, but Conroy reveals his true feelings, which is that he doesn't much care at all. The educational dysfunction of the school is promulgated by its lack of resources and inability to institute real change, but also by Brown and Bennington.

Gullah Culture on Yamacraw Island

The missing component for true educational reform would be before the children ever get to school--by their parents. However, parenting skills that foster healthy early childhood development are sorely lacking on the island. According to the American Psychological Association, "the notion that early attention to physical and psychological development can improve cognitive ability" is supported by research done by psychologists and the former U.S. Surgeon General Julius Richmond. In truth, babies born in emotionally healthy families, surrounded by books and rich experiences, are nurtured intellectually. A child from an enriched environment, ready for kindergarten, has already mastered many concepts, leaving a sad comparison to the children of Yamacraw.

Pittman & Davis

As an example of poor parenting, consider a fisherman named Sam with a misshapen foot in a corrective shoe. Conroy learns that as a baby, he fell out of his crib with his foot stuck in the slats of his crib. His mother had left him alone while she went to the local bar, and when she finally came home and freed him, neglected to take him to the hospital to have the bone set in a cast. The woman evidences an astonishing lack of rudimentary knowledge about caring for a baby or even natural affection for one. With this kind of mothering, it is no wonder the children of Yamacraw arrive at their first day of school woefully unprepared to learn.

Conroy is originally motivated by white guilt, but it morphs through the school year into a genuine concern for the students. He also admits his youthful idealism and outrage against self-righteous people who stand in the way of others' civil rights. He would be happy to know that today Daufuskie Island has come of age, sporting golf resorts and having the Gullah residential section designated as a federal Historical District. The school still has only two classrooms, but it is a nicely rebuilt facility with a fancy school bus.

Daufuskie Island School Bus Today
photo by David Burn

At the end of the school year and the book, Conroy resigns himself to the fact that he didn't "change the quality of their lives significantly or alter the inexorable fact that they were imprisoned by the very circumstance of their birth." Despite his best efforts, he believes his students probably didn't glean much from him, but at least he tried to do something constructive. However, to the reader he was successful because he extended genuine love towards the children, and there is no way to measure that important ingredient.

The Water Is Wide portrays a slice of American history concerning racism during the Jim Crow era. South Carolina struggled with its legacy of slavery even 100 years after the Civil War ended, and Yamacraw Island depicted it well. The story is a well written, enlightening read for anyone who desires to understand the Old South and its lingering culture.


American Psychological Association, Early Intervention Can Improve Low-Income Children's Cognitive Skills and Academic Achievement, April 22, 2004,

Conroy, Pat, The Water Is Wide (New York: Bantam Books, 1997).

National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Daufuskie Island Historic District, June 2, 1982,

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