Archive | 7:46 PM

Book Club Reflection: Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer

10 Sep

One of my ‘themed’ posts I want to do is a reflection of what information was covered in my bi-weekly (usually) book club meetings.  I’ll still post reviews of the books as I finish them, but I’ll also take notes during my meetings and summarize what the group thought of the book.  I hope to close with some things I learned about being an engaging writer from listening to everyone.

So for this month, there’s not the advantage of a book review to go back to before reading this reflection.  As I always will, I’ll direct you to Goodreads.

Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer

Short synopsis: Harry Levine lives in Detroit and owns a shoe wholesaler at the intersection of Grand River Avenue and Joy Road (hense the title).  He and his fellow Jewish neighbors are starting to think about leaving Messerthe city for the more comfortable suburbs.  Slowly, his neighborhood empties and the blacks start to move in.  Tensions are high and the setting is prime for the 1967 Detroit Race Riots.  Based on the history of the riots, Messer spins a tale of tested relationships and what it means to be a good friend.

To preface these discussions, please remember that I live in Detroit.  There were several members of the group who were alive during the riots and have vivid memories of what happened during those few tense days.  (For anyone unfamiliar with the Detroit Riots, Wikipedia is always good for a short summary.)

Messer uses one-word titles for her chapters with the exception of the chapter about the riots themselves.  She titled that one “Riot/Rebellion.”  We discussed why this one deserved two words.  (I cheated since I’d already read an interview with the author where she was asked this exact question.)  We got he answer ‘right’ in that Messer realized the Riots were not riots to everyone; many of the blacks living in Detroit saw the events as a rebellion against a police force that at many times was oppressive toward the black populace.  The majority of officers in Detroit were white while the whites were no longer a majority of the city.  The non-black population (mostly white Christians and Jews) felt that the blacks were rebelling against a force that in their opinion was keeping everyone safe and the city in good order.  Messer has two major characters, one white and one black, who would have viewed the events in two different ways and having the Riot/Rebellion title reflects that.

Harry Levine’s business is saved from ransacking by a message scrawled above his doorway.  (You’ll have to excuse me for not remembering the exact words, our club moderator took the copies back!)  To me, this was reminiscent of the plagues in Egypt and how those who had the message written above their doors were spared.  The other members of my group talked about instances they remembered from the riots when similar messages were scrawled across storefronts.  Those who would lend on credit or who cared about their neighborhood were spared; women would stand in front of stores to tell looters to pass them by.  The houses of policemen were marked not to avoid trouble, but to respect those who kept the peace (I’m not sure if this was during the riots or more of a modern-time-comment).

One of the most touching scenes in the book is when Harry sits down with his tenant and pseudo-employee Curtis in the basement of the store, waiting for the plumber to open so he can come fix their boiler.  It was right before the riots and showed how the two men, who physically appear so differently, are so alike.  They both complained about their children not listening to them, being cold, the state of the city, etc.  They were both uncomfortable talking to someone so different from themselves at first but with the help of alcohol and a long night, they realized they were saying the exact same thing, only in different ways.  My group reflected on how being comfortable around someone with a different background is something one learns early in life and if it’s not learned early, it’s hard to overcome.  A woman reflected on how a school group from only an hour outside of the city had come to Detroit for a field trip and felt like they were seeing animals in the zoo when a school group of black children passed them by.

Harry’s wife, Ruth, is the second narrator of the book.  Her main conflict centers around the community Woman’s Jewish group.  She has been asked to give a presentation on whether it is best to stay in the city or move to the suburbs.  She’s conflicted on what to say because the group will come up with an official recommendation and Ruth’s not sure what she thinks.  She likes living in the city but sees it slowly falling apart.  In the end, she really doesn’t say anything.  I posed the question as to who the recommendation was aimed toward.  Would it be a city wide proclamation?  A fellow reader pointed out that the woman’s group was looking for validation; is it okay to leave?  Is everyone else going to come, too?  If the club recommended leaving, they could all leave their guilt behind.  In the end, Ruth decided to leave because the riots destroyed all her hope of the city being regenerated and a good place to raise a family.

There was a minor character who really touched me.  I think he was an angel.  He appeared the first time in a flashback Harry had.  He remembered a black man who had found him playing hookey from work and taken him to the Detroit Institute of Art so he could see Diego Rivera paint the Detroit Industry murals.  I’m a huge fan of these murals and every time I see them, I’m completely moved.  (Side note, if you’re ever in Detroit, it’s my #1 recommendation.)  This man helps him see the beauty of life, race, and the city.  In one of the last scenes during the riots, a suspiciously similar character guides Harry to a synagog where he finds peace praying in a shul with other men.  I think the character was guiding Harry through his rough times and helping him find the peace and beauty of the city.

It’s ironic to note that Grand River and Joy is not in the best of neighborhoods now.  The setting Messer painted was quite clean, orderly, and high-class.  No longer.

Of the three people sitting around me, two recommend the book to others, one did not.  I give it four out of five stars.

As a writer, I listened closely to what others said about Messer’s writing style.  We were disappointed at times by a lack of description.  There were scenes that she built up to and then skipped over, leaving the reader wanting more than was there.  Her lack of description made some of the characters feel flat.  We connected well with the book, but wonder if much of that was because of the setting so close to home and (for some) personal memories of the events taking place.  I think I would be more likely to recommend this book to other Detroiters than to someone from outside the city.  It might read as more fiction to someone who isn’t familiar with Detroit’s past.
Writers takeaway: Make your characters relatable and detailed, don’t fall short of a scene you’ve built up to, make your setting tangible to those who are unfamiliar with it (especially a struggle in science fiction).  Techniques: repeating secondary characters who carry a consistent message across scenes, touching upon real history to make a personal connection with readers.