This novel covers the months leading up to Detroit’s horrific 1967 summer and its aftermath. The riot/rebellion the city and its residents–and vicariously, the entire country–experienced in July 1967 lasted five days, 43 people died, more than a thousand were injured, and the associated fires destroyed thousands of buildings. The city has never recovered.
Messer’s story details the intersection of lives, as well—black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, parents and children. In the unsettled time leading up to the July events, Harry Levine—the Jewish owner of a wholesale shoe store founded by his father—and his family members and neighbors debate whether to leave their Detroit neighborhood and join the flight to the white suburbs. Harry also maintains an increasingly uneasy relationship with the store’s upstairs tenants, Curtis and his teenage son Alvin, who are black. Inescapable are the longstanding tensions between blacks and Jews, which derive from a tangled history of thwarted expectations and differing patterns of upward mobility.
Early in the morning after Halloween, nine months before the uprising, Harry and his sister arrive at the store and find painted on the front window the words “Honky Jew Boy.” Alvin is suspected. Later during the riots, when buildings all around the store are erupting in flames, Harry’s building is one of the few to survive, partly because this time the white paint splashed across the front window spells out “Soul Brother.” Alvin wrote it to save his and Curtis’s home.
Harry is a sympathetic character, but he suffers by a lack of coming to grips. He ignores problems with the building’s boiler, so it eventually threatens to blow up in a cloud of steam. More important, he downplays and ignores the simmering social forces in his community, which do explode in violence. While he could have been more conscientious about the boiler, the social forces were beyond one man’s capacity to redress. But he ignored how those forces might affect his wife, daughters, and sister, even though all around him “should we stay?” and “should we go now?” were a dominant conversation. Curtis, especially, tries to cut through the cotton wool Harry surrounds himself with and give him a dose of reality. It’s easier just to keep on keepin on.
This is a beautifully written story by a thoughtful writer that contains barrels of good humor and fundamental humanity. It helps the reader examine many sides of a complex time that should not be forgotten as long as America’s issues with race remain unresolved.