I confess, much as I’m drawn to a bottle of wine with a provocative label, I’m also attracted to a book with high-profile accolades. So, when I was handed a copy of Elaine Neil Orr’s new book, Swimming Between Worlds, I flipped it over as a matter of habit to peruse those high-profile accolades, and found among them this, from Charles Frazier, New York Times bestselling author of Cold Mountain: “The struggle of its deftly drawn young characters to navigate the monumental changes – cultural and personal – that the civil rights movement brought to the South is rich and compelling.”
He’s not wrong. But I will be so bold as to gently contradict Charles Frazier by proposing alternatively that Orr is so adept at bringing to life these characters, that the setting of her book and the historical significance of the characters’ struggles transcend its period setting. Orr has managed to make these characters so authentic that their lives resonate – intentionally, I imagine – with the struggles of any evolving human, in any era.
Swimming Between Worlds focuses largely on two characters living in Winston-Salem, NC around the year 1959. Tacker Hart, the golden-haired high school football hero has just returned in disgrace from Nigeria, where a prestigious architecture firm that hired him straight out of NCSU had stationed him to work. The other central character is Kate Monroe – an outlier who, when her mother passes away, returns from college in Atlanta to attend to her family’s home, unfinished relationships, and unrealized potential. These two characters are – in different ways – a hot mess. If this book were just about the development of these relatable characters; if it were just about the ways in which they explore, consider or make peace with their outsider status; if it were just about how and to what extent they relate to one another and the events of the civil rights movement as it unfolds around them – I’d have been well and truly hooked. But Orr does so much more than that.
I tore through this book at first. I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose momentum in the reading of it. I wanted to make sure the book didn’t lose momentum before I finished whatever story arc Orr had developed for these compelling, full-color, 3-D characters. But I shouldn’t have worried. As it was, I was so drawn in to the action of the book I found myself rationing my enjoyment of it. No more than a chapter a night, lest I finish too quickly, have to say goodbye to and then miss these lovely, tender people. Orr was able to sustain a vigorous pace without leaving me exhausted or inured to the remarkable time and events of the period. She’s a masterful storyteller.
Orr has a remarkable capacity to fill out the story line, to pad appropriately the historical framework and to make characters and their environments more life-like with her attention to sensual experience and colorful detail. Here’s what I mean:
In the backyard, the crocuses were coming up, the purple before the yellow. She walked up and down the flagstones in the diminishing light. Finally it was too chilly. She plucked a single purple crocus. It seemed to shiver as she plucked it and she took it immediately to her nose to smell the life of it, smelling not the blossom but the broken base, where it was wet and open from the breakage. It smelled of green water and deep pools of rock beneath water.
Orr identified the images and fragrances of places that are familiar to me in ways that were new to me. And when she describes places not familiar to me – like the Nigeria of Tacker’s experiences – she’s able to make them feel entirely accessible and equally authentic.
I will encourage everyone I know to purchase a copy so that they can meet my new best friends, so that we can link arms and be encouraged in our mutual efforts to know ourselves and one another as we struggle with whatever changes we face.