A Review of Elaine Neil Orr’s ‘Swimming Between Worlds’
Swimming Between Worlds is a feat of historical fiction that weaves romance, social revolution and retrospect.
A story of three young adults in a North Carolina town embroiled in the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Swimming Between Worlds is a novel about desires, privilege and perspective—and the capacity for change inherent in every individual. Author Elaine Neil Orr plays with point of view in her fourth book, as she separates the voices by chapter, switching the focus between two of the three main characters, Tacker and Kate.
The two young adults are connected by their small-town upbringing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and their history both complicates and substantiates their relationship. They become involved when Tacker returns from an overseas project in Nigeria, where he began questioning both his role in the project and his place in the world before being discharged for appreciating the local culture. Kate has returned to Winston-Salem after the death of her mother, having inherited the family home and all the history within it. As the novel progresses, Kate is forced to reconsider her complacency with the state of the town as she tries to come to terms with her growing affinity for Tacker and the conflict between his goals and her antiquated behaviors.
Tacker and Kate are also connected by their involvement with Gaines, the third central character and arguably the closest to the heart of the novel. He serves as a catalyst in both the narrative arc of the book and the linear arc of Tacker and Kate’s lives. Having moved in with his aunt in the black side of town, he has brought the Civil Rights Movement with him. Gaines is a young, black man intent on beginning a wave of sit-ins and demonstrations in Winston-Salem. Succeeding in inspiring local collaboration, Gaines ushers in a period of introspection and awareness of the social inequities Tacker had been previously exposed to during his time in Nigeria. The choices Tacker and Kate make in how they respond to Gaines’ actions throughout the novel reflect both their own character and the character of life in America at the time.
Swimming Between Worlds strikes a balance between the visceral wants of the characters and the flow of events in history, giving depth and scale to the demand for equal rights and the pursuit of happiness that is just as relevant today. With this novel, Orr succeeds in injecting romance and a certain hopefulness into a story of one of the most turbulent times in American history without trivializing the historical situation or falling into a pit of white savior complexes. The characters are dynamic, and there is no wasted dialogue or scene in Orr’s efforts to present a view of the prejudices, hesitance and social demands grounded in the realities of segregated America.
Swimming Between Worlds is one of our 2018 summer reads. View the full Summer Reading List here.