Detroit in Fiction

Cars, Motown, the long destructive tail of the 1967 riots. The Tigers, the Lions, the Pistons, the Redwings. These pretty much sum up my home town of Detroit for many people. Well, maybe not the Lions. But the city is a lot more complex—and interesting—than these. When I was growing up, Detroit was the country’s fourth-largest city; now it’s the 27th. That massive change—due to white flight, the auto industry’s shift to the nonunionized South, and other difficulties—was accompanied by a lot of pain. The semblance of optimism in the past few years follows an excruciating and stuttering journey. Fiction tells the story of that journey and the families affected by it.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The Turner family of thirteen children has to decide what to do with the house they grew up in on Detroit’s east side. The relationships among the siblings are complicated, and the city itself is like a character restricting their choices. Their parents moved north from Arkansas after World War II to escape the Jim Crow South, and while they faced prejudice and changing economic circumstances, their children are now almost all firmly middle class. When they come together to celebrate their widowed mother’s birthday—possibly her last—you see family relationships in action, the accommodations, the cheer, the old wounds, and the shared expectations. A lovely book.

Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer

Some intersections carry their own weight of associations—Hollywood and Vine or Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division—and in this book, Messer delves into the months leading up to the 1967 riots/rebellion and their aftermath. The violence lasted five days, and the city has needed almost fifty years to recover, the entire lifetimes of a great many of its poorest, most affected, residents. Messer’s story shows the ways lives intersected—black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, old and young. At a time when tensions and the possibility of danger were rising, tough decisions were needed.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Many readers assume that Detroit is the unnamed rust-belt city that occupies the first half of Morrison’s classic, which helped gain Morrison her Nobel Prize in literature. A complex coming-of-age story, rich in cultural and folkloric references.

Elmore Leonard’s Detroit Crime Novels

From the age of nine, Elmore Leonard grew up in Detroit and graduated from the University of Detroit. Called “the Dickens of Detroit”  Leonard set many of his crime novels there, including City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, 52 Pickup, and The Switch.

Image: Peter Mol for Pixabay.