Book Review: The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy
“I then told them they had to look upon themselves in a different light, that they had to be convinced of their basic worth, and that they could learn just as fast as anybody else. If they didn’t believe it, they could get the hell out of my class.”
I have read almost all of Pat Conroy’s books, but have never read his first memoir, The Water Is Wide. I’ve had a copy for a while, so I put it on my summer TBR list, and even though I am a couple weeks behind, I am so glad I finally picked it up. I just learned that The Water Is Wide was turned into movie with Jon Voight called Conrack. I am interested to watch it and see if it feels genuine to the memoir. After Pat Conroy graduated from The Citadel, he taught high school at Beaufort High School in South Carolina, then decided he wanted to make more of a difference and applied for a teaching position on Yamacraw Island, a tiny island off the coast of South Carolina that was predominantly African-American. Yamacraw Island is actually Daufauskie Island, but Conroy changed the name of the island and its inhabitants to protect their privacy. Because the island was so isolated, most of the residents did not know anything about current events (at the time Conroy was there, it was the late 1960s). Conroy was so excited to go and teach, and as he says, “... I entertained delusions that we would somehow save the world, or at least a small portion of it, the idea of our own island, free from administrative supervision, appealed to us very much.” However, when he gets to Yamacraw, he is blindsided by how far behind the students are. He is meant to be teaching fifth through eighth graders, yet most of them cannot even read at all. He spends the next year trying to teach these kids not only how to read, but more about the world.
Conroy’s writing has long been one of my favorites; his writing style is just so lovely. He (closely followed by Joshilyn Jackson) is my favorite Southern writer; he captures the South so perfectly with all its flaws and its beauty. Though I am a huge Conroy fan, I was a little hesitant about reading The Water Is Wide in 2018, considering it was written in 1972. I was worried that this would come across as a white savior story. Thankfully that was not the case. Conroy was very honest about the situation of the Yamacraw Island residents. He went into the school year thinking he could make a difference, but he quickly realized how far behind these kids’ education, or more accurately, lack of education, was. He quickly had to readjust his priorities in order to teach his students. He (rightfully so) was furious with the Board of Education and its administrators for letting these kids just flounder. He was also very upfront about the racism from the white residents and how it affected his job and the kids.
Some of the most interesting parts of The Water Is Wide were Conroy’s interactions with the administration. It was clear that even though Dr. Piedmont and Mr. Bennington claimed to care about the students on Yamacraw, neither one of them had any desire to actually come out to the island and see the state of the kids’ educations. Even Mrs. Brown, the Yamacraw principal, a black woman, did not believe in these kids and actively tried to bring them down. The kids absolutely despised Mrs. Brown because she constantly threatened them and called them horrible names. Conroy was the only one who realized that in order for the kids to learn anything, it wouldn’t be through textbooks. A lot of the kids didn’t even know that they lived in the United States; none of them realized the US was fighting a war in Vietnam. They thought that Savannah was the biggest town in the US and could not even name any other cities. Conroy implemented various teaching methods. He brought in records and taught the kids all about Beethoven, Verdi, and Tchaikovsky. They studied the world map and learned basic knowledge. Conroy could never use the textbook because most of the kids would not get anything out of it. He realized that his main job was to prepare kids for the world off the island in case they ever left, and that is exactly what he did.
Conroy was the mentor that these kids needed and did everything he could do improve their education. He had friends come to give talks; he would show movies. He invited all the kids to trick or treat with his neighbors for Halloween. He had some of the girls over for Valentine’s Day with him and his wife Barbara. He even took the kids to Washington, DC in the spring, thanks to some sponsors. The kids were on their best behavior, but also had a lot of fun at the same time. And again, Conroy was the only one to see any potential in them. Luckily his friends and family all helped plan these outings. And when he eventually got into a fight with the administration, they were all there for him. Unfortunately, he and the administration never could reach a compromise on his teaching style and his commute to the island. But even after his year teaching his beloved students ended, he still was in touch and around to help.
Like I said, I was really nervous how well this book would hold up. Yes, there is racism in this book and racial slurs, but Pat Conroy did not have a white-savior complex with his position. He truly believed that Americans had done a disservice to the Yamacraw Island residents, and he just wanted to give those kids the best chance he could give them. He was extremely honest about the political landscape in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1968. Yet even fifty years later, The Water Is Wide is still a reminder of how for the most part, things have improved in terms of race relations, but even in 2018, there is still a lot of work to be done.
The Water Is Wide is a powerful read. It doesn’t matter if you are a longtime fan of Pat Conroy or have never read any of his works, I cannot recommend this memoir enough. Now that I’ve reminded myself how much I love his writing, I think I’m going to go back and reread my favorite of his books, Beach Music. I hate that we’ll never get another great Conroy novel, but ask almost any well-read Southerner who the Patron Saint of Southern Writing is, and I feel strongly they would all say Pat Conroy. When he died, Garden & Gun wrote a touching piece on him. He remains one of my all-time favorite writers. I really enjoyed The Water Is Wide; it is clear how that teaching experience would influence his writing over the years. I give it 4 stars.
What is your favorite Pat Conroy memory?