“Swimming Between Worlds,” by Elaine Neil Orr

Elaine Neil Orr

Reviewed by Kathleen Thompson

Elaine Neil Orr’s novel, Swimming Between Worlds, can be judged by its cover.

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The time is January 1958. This cover depicts a large swimming pool, so crowded with swimmers, in the water or sunning on the sides, that one might surmise it a special day—maybe the last day before school starts back, or a holiday. The pool is hemmed in by what appears to be a head-high chain-link fence.

That same year Montgomery School in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, held its fall festival replete with cake walk and talent show, and featured a quartet of schoolgirls showing off more enthusiasm than talent by lip-syncing Bo Diddley’s, “You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover.” His rock and roll music provided a rare opportunity for four young Baptists, not allowed to dance at all, to shake off the rigidity of rules.

About a year later, another of their rock and roll faves, Buddy Holly, would, as Orr mentions, “fall through the sky.”

Orr has structured the book largely through a meticulous choice of metaphors such as this one about Holly, and by its distinctly ordered narrative, labeled with divisions of time and place. The clarity and magnetism of Orr’s creation are drawn in the very first line in the story: Early mornings on the university compound were quiet as the dawn of the world.

More creative writer here than college professor, Orr, although she wears both hats, thereby pronounces the cosmic scope of time and distance of this book, in all its dualities and poetic truths. It would be difficult to imagine a quiet so quiet as the dawn of the world. How would first light, such pristine light, look? And why a compound and not just a campus? What kind of university is this? Will this dawn of a world lead the reader at breakneck speed to the world’s end? Will that finality be a fiery finish?

Orr’s word choices from the start can be both disquieting and prophetic. During Tacker Hart’s first week in Nigeria he notes that “High-life music floating out of store fronts rendered the world fluid, giving inanimate objects their own life. A mossy water pot set under a tree seemed as alive as a hawk in the air…Something mythic seemed afoot in this fermenting African world, something deep beneath the surface of things.”

As a fifth year student at North Carolina School of Design, Tacker Hart, one of the central characters, had been chosen to work on a school-building project in Ibadan, Nigeria.  Hart has just been, forcibly it would seem, expelled and extracted from the architectural project, and Nigeria. The magnitude of his dismissal is suggested by a recommendation for a mental assessment. Oceans away, back home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he has decided he won’t tell his college sweetheart, Jill, about the dismissal. His parents, meantime, are urging him to find a job. Any job. He agrees to run Hart’s Grocery, the family store, until he finds other work, perhaps an architectural project.

The details of the first pages keep the reader wondering and sometimes holding a breath about what really brought Tacker home and what caused him to come home so abruptly. He seemed to have adapted to living in Ibadan thoroughly. What did his leaving have to do with his Nigerian friend, Samuel, and who was this Anna Becker who had once painted Tacker’s arm with henna?

Winston-Salem, North Carolina, July 1959. Tacker finds something far more real and explosive, if less mythic, afoot in his hometown: Gaines Townson has run all the way to Hart’s Grocery for a quart of milk for his baby sister. Tacker had not yet opened the store for the day, but is drawn to Gaines at first glance; he reminds him of his close friend, Samuel Ladipo, in Ibadan. He invites Gaines to come in and get the milk. Before Gaines can get outside with it, an angry group gathers to try to block his leaving. They start badgering and threatening Gaines. When Tacker comes to his defense, the crowd takes on Tacker as well.

An older man taunts Tacker, “You some kind of nigger lover? …You like these fancy niggers tipping their hats and winking at our women? He was taking up the whole sidewalk like a damned cock.”

Orr, the scholar and daughter of missionaries, has let her hair down this time. No pretty words. No mercy. She calls a spade a spade, but the effect of such scalding, charged dialogue is mitigated through her rare sensitivity toward both sides in this specific story. The birthing of integration in the south with lunch counter sit-in’s and boycotts had begun. Its progression would be anything but clean and painless.  Orr’s story in the tradition of a region known for its oral storytelling, is told in an elevated style that does not deter the reader of this page-turner.

Conventions of the mystery genre and the historical romance salt the surface of certain pages. The age-old usage question is which word is appropriate to describe this novel: sensual or sensuous, of the senses, or of the intellect? Orr pairs the two and the hungry reader benefits from the effects of both.

Orr’s actual finger-to-keyboard arrangement of the story by metaphor and by clear divisions may be explained another way through the thoughts of her other central character, Kate Monroe, a recent graduate of Agnes Scott in Atlanta, who is back home in Winston-Salem, too.

The subjects of great literature didn’t teach Kate anything she didn’t already know….What the study of literature taught was that the way to deal with life was through the perfect arrangement of words. A novel contained an ordered world even if the subject was the chaos of war. A sonnet was a world in sixteen lines. Even death was made more complete in literature because it was written and thus ordered…. Literature was pain organized with the symmetry of a camellia.

Orr’s watery truths of metaphor seldom disappoint, although one may feel swimmy headed at times until stopped short, caught up by an informative division page, distinguished sometimes by setting, sometimes by date, but mostly both, mostly non-sequential, tempting the reader to stop. An opportunity to breathe in, breathe out.

Still, the shortest distance between two points is not always the straightest line. The narrative thread flows from foreshadowing to back story between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Ibadad in the land of the Yoruba, in Nigeria. It weaves in and out of the years 1958-1960, its labeled parts of separation keeping the non-linear reader right on track. It is, in fact, the imposed clarity of the structure that compels the reader to hurry—to imagine, to hope about what will happen next. This ordering of the narrative thread through metaphor does tell all the truth, much of it in the language of Emily Dickinson. Orr’s own slant, coupled with her spot-on prose, skillfully twins the lives of disparate characters from different cultures, different worlds.

Kate Monroe has had a relationship with her college boyfriend, James, but now that her mother has died, she is back home with her brother Brian, and mainly keeps up with James through letters. Her mother, on her deathbed, had muttered something to Kate about letters, and burning letters. It was not clear, however, whether the letters were her mother’s meant for somebody, or letters to her mother from Kate’s father or somebody else. Kate can’t help wondering if her father’s death had been by drowning, or intentional. In the first two chapters mysteries have already emerged and, in this case, involves letters.

The reader’s mind rushes back to a more complete allusion to Emily Dickinson: the many letters Dickinson wrote, in addition to her poem, “Tell all the truth but tell it in slant,” published after her death from kidney disease in 1886.

Both Tacker and Kate are in a separate flux of swimmy head indecision about the life choices that have landed them right back home, hemmed in where they started, hardly remembering each other.  They were brought together following the incident with Gaines Townson and the quart of milk. The angry white locals had created a scene as disturbing to Tacker as the one which ended his stay in Ibadan, Nigeria. Kate, by chance had witnessed Gaines running down the alley with the quart of milk. Townson becomes a central figure in the early civil rights lunch counter sit-ins in Winston-Salem. Kate later confesses that she thought Gaines had probably stolen the milk that day.

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The parallels of Orr’s past two books with this one make her body of work seem something of a trilogy. All three books involve the land of the Yoruba in Nigeria and the southern United States. The first, a memoir, Gods of Noonday, was shaped and colored by Orr’s early life in Nigeria where her family lived as medical missionaries. The author’s self-proclaimed “double rootedness” in the memoir continues on into the novel,  A Different Sun. No surprise.

This third book, another novel, Swimming Between Worlds, becomes the unexpected cornerstone of this trilogy of memoir-turned-fiction. It would take a thesis-length paper to consider all the parallels of the three books. One parallel does demand mention: the visual art on each of the book covers features a body of water.

Water—the word, the bodies of water, rivers, oceans, ponds, pools; the characteristics of water; the actual smell of water is pervasive in Orr’s work.

Those who have heard Orr speak about her memoir will probably have heard that she considers her river/snake dream a prophecy about the end-stage renal disease she would have. The memoir pictures Orr as a girl in a bathing suit and barefoot on a dock at the Ethiope River in Nigeria (picture by Lloyd Neil.)

Her following novel, A Different Sun, has a cover design by Diana Kolsky of a man standing on a fishing boat in the water and a woman standing on the grasses watching him in bright sunlight anchored in dark strips along the horizon.

This most recent title, Swimming Between Worlds, pictures a new swimming pool (already described). The pivotal metaphor of this cover is superb as a conclusion to the three books, for Tacker has managed at last to find another architectural project. He will design the bathhouse, but even before the design is finished, he has second thoughts.

…At the end of the dream he touched his front teeth with his tongue and understood that they were falling out…He moved to the place near the edge of the pond where the heron had been. Why did he care so much? Life would be so much easier if he could just forget about fairness. What was justice anyway? You couldn’t quantify suffering or pleasure.

This book is layered with metaphor in dreams. Orr dreams her characters and gives both Kate Monroe and Tacker Hart dreams. Orr has also advocated the usefulness of dreams as a writing tool in her lecture for students in the low residency MFA in Writing program at Spalding University. In that same lecture she quotes her son, just a child, who asked her, “If I can’t dream, how will I fly?”

Brace yourself for the completion of Swimming Between Worlds. It is a stage for Boomers, their southernisms (“I swan”), their Indians, and Nash Metropolitans, set against a backdrop of the early civil rights movement, the injustices, and the consequences.

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This is one book you can judge by looking at the cover. Every swimmer pictured at the pool is white. It is an accurate depiction of segregated pools all over the south at that time.

This novel comprises the depth and breadth of Orr’s most exquisite and carefully wrought prose. On the occasion of their engagement, Tacker kisses Kate, “and she knew without a doubt that he was a book she would never want to put down.”

Elaine Neil Orr, writer and scholar, not only flies; she soars.

 

 

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