Donald Patrick “Pat” Conroy is recognized as a leading figure of late-20th century Southern literature.
Pat Conroy is generally better known for novels like Prince of Tides and Beach Music. But an early work of nonfiction about his days as schoolteacher on Daufuskie Island is a standout. Although Daufuskie is called “Yamacraw” and the names of characters are changed as well, the unflinching portrayal upset many in 1972. Conroy spoke the truth about what he saw. He wrote of little black children on an island of isolation and poverty, whose education had been so sorely neglected. These children could not even recite the alphabet or name the country they lived in.
In a pitiful drafty schoolhouse with outdated textbooks cast off by mainland white schools, they were beaten and called “retarded” by their only other teacher. So Conroy promptly instituted his own unorthodox methods. He takes them across the water on field trips to an unfamiliar outside world. Because of this, his job was threatened by patriarchal powers of the school board.
He actually married his first wife, Barbara (née Bolling) Jones on October 10, 1969, while he was teaching on Daufuskie Island.
Conroy was fired at the conclusion of his first year on the island for his unconventional teaching practices, including his refusal to use corporal punishment on students, and for his lack of respect for the school’s administration. He later wrote The Water Is Wide based on his experiences as a teacher. The book won Conroy a humanitarian award from the National Education Association and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. It was also made into a feature film, Conrack, starring Jon Voight in 1974. Hallmark produced a television version of the book in 2006.
Despite its treatment of such heavyweight issues, the book is an absolute joy to read. It is full of the warmth and humor of Daufuskie’s native islander community. And the kids — you can’t help but love the kids! The author perfectly captures their hilarity, innocence and mean streaks; their tragedy, potential and hope. The Lowcountry is better for having this book.
Sources: By Michele Roldán-Shaw and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Conroy.