The Rock and the River is set in the late sixties during the Civil Rights Movement. Sam is a thirteen year old boy caught between two paths of the Movement. His father is one of the leaders in the peaceful resistance movement, and his other brother, Steve, has joined up with the Black Panthers. Sam doesn’t know what the right path is, or if there really is a right path.
This was an incredibly powerful book, one of the best historical fiction novels I’ve read all year. It was powerful enough that I had to set it aside a couple times just to catch my breath and let my mind settle. Like with any period of history, the Civil Rights Movement is something I’m just not that familiar with – I’ve never been the biggest history buff – but this book presented it in a way that made it come alive to me, with all its grey areas highlighted.
I’ve never been a fan of violence. I’ve never liked the idea of the Black Panthers, but let me qualify that: I never liked them in the way that I learned about them. I learned about their violence, and that’s about it. As a pacifist, I think violence only begets violence and strengthens the cycle of hate among two sets of people who should, instead, try to come to know and understand each other. Only understanding can put aside prejudice and fear. That’s always been my opinion, but The Rock and the River really showed a different side of the Panthers, and why having both sides of the Movement were important; how they propped each other up and helped to even each other out. Neither on their own would have done as well as the combined efforts of both.
I thought there was a pretty good case in this book against violence. One violent act spurred another, which caused another, and then another, and so on, until the situation was spiraling out of control. It reminded me of gang violence that was unfortunately very prevalent in my high school: groups of people hurting each other in revenge, back and forth, escalating. Same thing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I’ve been reading a lot about recently. Same thing in any feud. Only when one side steps back and says no, we’re not going to keep this going, it doesn’t matter who wins, does violence stop.
But can a person or group step back when they know they are in the right, and by stepping back they will continue to be trampled on? This is where the situation really becomes grey, and why I understand why some people did resort to violence. What whites were doing to blacks was horrible! The fact that police could get away with beating or shooting someone and then blaming the victim because of skin color is appalling. That hospitals could elect to treat white people before black people is morally repugnant. That blacks were denied jobs and decent housing because of their skin is disgusting. At times as I read, I found myself not minding the violence as much, even though in the end, I honestly can’t condone it.
It’s a hard situation. The Panthers did some wonderful things, like setting up free breakfasts for poor people, building health clinics to serve the black population that couldn’t get seen in a timely manner (or at all) at hospitals, and raising money to hire lawyers for the wrongfully accused. I liked that they worked with the peaceful resistance movement as well. I liked what Steve tells Sam, that the Panthers are not all about guns and violence, and that if he thinks that, he doesn’t know anything about them. I like that some of the Panthers chose nonviolent, but still active, ways of resistance. I think there is a segment of the Panthers I can fully agree with, even if there are other parts that I simply can’t. There were parts that advocated violence as a means to an end, and some members who were more violent than others. I can’t condone those parts. But I loved learning about all those other parts, the parts that we aren’t really taught in school (and should be!). The social reform aspects were far more powerful in my mind than the violent ones.
This was a fantastic book, and my only qualm at all is with a choice Sam makes at the very end of the book. I felt like through the whole book, Sam is trying to feel his way along, measuring both paths he might take. I felt like the author showed both the positives and negatives of each sides of the Movement, without advocating one or the other. When Sam makes his choice at the end – and I won’t say which way he goes, because I don’t want to spoil it – it was written in a way that felt like the author was weighing in with her opinion on the situation. I liked how balanced the whole book was, but the very end tipped it in one direction. It doesn’t even matter the direction; either way would have been equally disappointing. I liked that the book was balanced, and I didn’t like the scale tipping at the end.
But that was only a very minor thing. All in all, this book was fabulous, thought-provoking, and eye-opening, and I can’t wait to discuss it with my YA book club!