Subtle artistry shines in Elaine Neil Orr’s “Swimming Between Worlds”

Carl Matthews became the first black person to be served sitting down at a formerly all white lunch counter in North Carolina in May 1960. Elaine Neil Orr's novel, "Swimming Between Worlds", examines the lives of three characters living those events in real time. Photo via Digital Forsyth.

Winston-Salem was once known as the Twin City for the merging of the industrial town of Winston with the religious village Salem in the 1890s to form the city best known in the last century for Camel cigarettes and Krispy Kreme donuts.

Elaine Neil Orr’s latest novel “Swimming Between Worlds” does a masterful job of weaving subtle themes related to the city into her bildungsroman centered on lovers Tacker and Kate as they attempt to rise up to the historical moments unfolding in real time across the south. Orr, a professor of English at NC State University in Raleigh, grew up in Nigeria and is the author of the previously published novel, “A Different Sun”, two scholarly books, and the memoir “Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life”. Orr lived in Winston-Salem briefly as a young girl, but her novel rings true to natives of the city, such as the writer of this review.

The novel opens in early 1960 as Tacker Hart is coming to terms with the abrupt way in which he was removed from an international service project building schools in West Africa. Orr gets the novel off to a quick and mysterious start relaying Tacker’s experience that led to him being restrained on an airplane headed back stateside. Once back in Winston-Salem, Tacker is uncertain if he’ll continue his career as an architect and settles in to managing his father’s popular grocery store in the city’s West End.

Tacker was a high school football star and young Kate Monroe had eyes for him in high school, but she was a few years behind him and the two never spoke. She’s back home now from attending college in Atlanta. Both of her parents have died, leaving her a stately home in a prestigious neighborhood. She also has a medical student from Atlanta chasing after her, which complicates her feelings for Tacker.

Compelling Characters

Swimming Between Worlds
Swimming Between Worlds

It’s in these two characters that Orr finds success in building the novel. Tacker, in my view, represents Winston—industrious, surrounded by people, looking to the future—while Kate represents Salem—pious, wed to tradition, isolated and concerned with maintaining an imposed moral order. The tension of opposites is constant as these dual stories develop and come together.

Kate’s past is distant, mysterious, with uncertainty of meaning brought forth in the form of letters from her father discovered in a tin on her mother’s back porch. Tacker’s past is immediate, having just unfolded in West Africa the previous year. Orr drops subtle hints that the story could go in any direction. Did Tacker have a love interest with an African student on his all-male project? Did he run afoul of Judeo-Christian insistence by mixing with locals and participating in tribal rituals? Or did he simply give the embassy a stir by criticizing the government in debates with young African communists?

Tacker’s backstory drives his actions as he comes to terms with Gaines Townsend, an African American his own age taking a leadership role in the emerging Civil Rights Movement by staging lunch counter sit ins at downtown restaurants. How far Tacker will go to put his own career, and his father’s grocery store, at risk to fulfill his own values of equality is a major thread of Orr’s novel.

At the same time, Kate’s loneliness and longing for a place beyond motherhood is perhaps the more compelling story line. It’s well written, conveying a sweet young woman whose strengths demand to be recognized in the modern world.

Perfectly wound tension

Elaine Neil Orr
Elaine Neil Orr

The dramatic tension in “Swimming Between Worlds” is perfectly wound, springing at just the right moment. At once a story of love, loss and justice, Orr’s novel is a delightful read that never slackens. The primary characters hold one’s interest as one roots for them, learns of their back story, and attempts to unpack layers of complexity that drive the narrative to its rushing conclusion.

The setting of Winston-Salem during the early Civil Rights Era serves as a character as well, with events happening on and off the novel’s main stage and causing one to consider how the pressure of historical events would drive one’s own personal and political choices.

I found myself rooting hard for Kate to overcome her losses and realize her potential. It reminded me often of my own mother, who would have been a girl of 12 in Winston-Salem during this time and come of age in the later 1960s.

This novel is well written, with no wasted sentences or scenes and just enough backstory to give the reader a sense of fullness.