Grand River and Joy, A Novel
Author: Susan Messer
Publisher: University of Michigan Press, 2009
Genre: Historical Fiction
Paperback Edition: 230 pages
Source: Library copy
Inside the city of Detroit during the 1960’s the reader falls in step with a Jewish family, and the black Americans who live in an apartment above the family wholesale shoe business Harry and his sister Ilo continue to operate with help from Curtis and his son Alvin who live upstairs. Readers meet Ruth, Harry’s wife and his three daughters and learn something of their lives and the Detroit neighborhood where they live some distance from the business. Readers who have lived in Detroit may feel immersed in the past when they read of White Castle burgers, the Grand Ballroom and former mayor Jerry Cavanaugh.
This is a story of race relations in Detroit, up close and personal, so to speak. Harry and Ruth want to listen to what is going on around them. We, as readers, want to listen to them. This wanting to listen is illustrated in one of the strongest extended scenes/chapters in the book: Boiler. In the middle of the winter night down in the basement of the business when they discover a gash in the boiler, Harry and Alvin sit in broken lawn chairs waiting for morning and the repairman; and they talk to each other and listen to each other.
Wisdom and interesting quotes, one wants to remember and wishes one had recorded, fill this book. I’m glad Book Club picked this book. I needed to hear the wisdom in this story, much of which is not new, but worth listening to again. And a good story about a time important to the history of Detroit, the metro area where I live, makes it easy to listen. The story told here also illustrates how so often people of one ethnic group or race do not understand the words of those from another group. Words and feelings sometimes build barriers to communication. This story removes some of the barriers.
Of special note in this story is a scene that describes the creation of the wonderful murals at the Detroit Institute of Art created by Diego Rivera. Harry’s visit to the mural years after its creation provides an added perspective to this work of art. Book club readers also discussed the joys and sadness of a project Harry did with one of his daughters, fixing old bikes and gathering them to give away in a neighborhood near his business. Mixed feelings and misunderstandings characterized this incident. Misunderstanding and trying to understand are major themes thoughout this time and the tale.
Though I feel sadness that the same issues that tore apart the city in 1967 continue to be responsible for fear and violence today, I am uplifted by the conversations books like this make easier. The candor and the humor of this story give insight and inspiration to the difficult terrain of race relations. Sometimes it seems things have not changed much since that long ago time in spite of our best efforts. There is work yet to be done to bring justice to all American.
We must not fear others. In fact, as someone at book club said so well, “ there are no others”. We are all fellow humans created by God. This is a story, not just for memories and hand-wringing, but for action and understanding. We will keep listening with open hearts. The character Harry can be a model for us all.