Books: Deep Waters

A first novel catches the current of life's changes

The river that runs through Breena Clarke's accomplished first novel, River, Cross My Heart (Little, Brown; 245 pages; $23), is the sluggish brown Potomac, benevolent on the surface but treacherous beneath. Along with other young African Americans from their Georgetown neighborhood, Johnnie Mae Bynum and her sister Clara are forced to use the river as a swimming hole owing to a race ban at their local pool. It's the 1920s, and the girls are part of a steady migration from the fields of the rural South to the streets of bustling Washington. Things are supposed to be better there, more sophisticated,...

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