Usually, this journal is the result of our group discussion of our monthly selections, tempered of course by my own reading of the book. Since we have not met for the last two months, this has been challenging. One member explicitly stated that he would have finished Down the River Unto the Sea, despite his lack of interest, if we had been meeting in person. Our library book club is particularly important for motivating us to get outside our usual book box, expanding our horizons in addition to creating shared experiences and a broader, diverse community.
I chose Down the River Unto the Sea because Walter Mosely is a well-renowned author of a variety of genres, though he is best known for his gritty detective novels that feature Easy Rawlins. I also wanted to choose a book that could “deepen the understanding and appreciation of Black life in the United States.”[i] With the pandemic isolating and terrorizing us, political polarization, the Me Too Movement and Black Lives Matter, among many other challenges, greater understanding and empathy offered through reading and discussion, in small, local groups that remind us of our humanity are needed more than ever.
That said . . .
As with some of the few responses I received, I was initially disturbed by Walter Mosely’s lead character’s actions as he is all too easily seduced by a woman he is supposed to arrest and then spends his entire working shift with her, not working. He is bitter and angry and protests that “law for me was scripture.” But what law? He was a married man.
Morals. I read in a travel guide once that retiring to Belize has a lot of benefits, as long as you are okay with a little bit of larceny. Who would be okay with a little bit of larceny? Down the River Unto the Sea made me think about that a lot. I also skimmed through several brutal scenes, especially near the end. I am not a usual reader of police thrillers. Like several of our book club members, I am much more likely to read cozier literary mysteries.
However, Walter Mosley’s prose is easy to read, his descriptions fresh and realistic:
- “. . .you don’t feel the blows through the rage, but that night the bone bruises hurt like hell.”
- “. . . time congealed around me like amber over a mosquito.”
- “The dollar is my master, but I ain’t no slave.”
- “When it came to cops as victims I was just another brick in the Blue Wall.”
- One of his characters says that “his greatest wish, when he was a child, was to change into something different; like wolves had become dogs or dinosaurs birds.”
- I was particularly moved by his description of being “chained in a metal chair to the table and the floor.” In a tour of the Clark County Detention Center, I twice saw men chained to such a chair, howling, with people moving about as if nothing was happening.
When my husband was reading the novel, he kept chuckling at the descriptions. He commented that every time new characters were introduced, their skin color was described. I had not noticed this: “gray-eyed with olive skin and kinky blond hair;” “fair-skinned;” “black like the Spanish Madonna;” ”white like aged ivory;” “bronze-red skin;” “His dark brown skin could have been mine.” And many more.
I mentioned to a black co-worker how remarkable I found Walter Mosley’s description of every character’s skin color. He responded nonchalantly that yes, in most books characters are just assumed to be white. I will definitely be looking for this in the future.
It is easy to find more comprehensive reviews of Down the River Unto the Sea online—just like most of our books. If you read it, what did you think? Even if you didn’t like it, will you read or perceive the world any differently? Walter Mosely has a short story collection called, The Awkward Black Man (2020). I haven’t read it, but, sometimes, short stories are bite-sized enough to give us a taste of something different. I look forward to your responses – to this or any other books you care to share. It matters.
Down the River Unto the Sea (2018) by Walter Mosely. Publisher: Mulholland Books. Kindle version: Hatchette Book Group