Two Novels Set in Detroit

I’m currently writing a novel set in 1960s Detroit, so I’ve been reading widely about this time and place. Two of my fiction finds are reviewed here. Watch for a future post on social histories of Detroit.

We Hope for Better Things     Erin Bartels     (2019)

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Interracial relationships are the theme of Erin Bartels’ multi-century historical novel. In the present-day chapters, white Detroit journalist Elizabeth Balsam, following up on a lead about unpublished photos of the 1967 Detroit riots, ends up at her great-aunt Nora’s farmhouse in Lapeer, about an hour’s drive north of the city. Elizabeth slowly uncovers information about Nora’s romance with an African American man in the turbulent Detroit of the 1960s; readers get this backstory in separate chapters.  

Yet another layer of Elizabeth’s family history is revealed in chapters set in Lapeer in 1861, when the farmhouse was a stop for slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad. I had to pay close attention to keep all the characters straight, but I appreciated all the local color and period detail in Bartels’ writing, as she places her characters at watershed moments of history, such as the June 1963 speech by Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, in Detroit. And that title? It’s from the motto for the city of Detroit: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”

Beautiful Music      Michael Zadoorian     (2018)

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If you’re familiar with the arcana of hard rock in the early 1970s (and I mean way beyond just MC5 and Iggy Pop), you’ll probably love this novel. That’s not my music, so I skimmed over the many references to bands and radio disc jockeys and album covers. I read the book instead for the touching story of a high school freshman at Redford High School, on Detroit’s far northwest side, in a period of increasing racial tension and violence in the city.

Danny Yzemski is a sweet, shy kid who’s bullied in school and beleaguered at home. His coming-of-age is aided by his discovery of the transformative power of music. He demonstrates that if you find the tracks that speak to you, the music can make all the difference in your survival. One chapter is aptly titled “Music Soothes the Savage Brain.” The detailed descriptions of Danny’s neighborhood along the Grand River corridor—the routes he took, the stores he frequented—re-create the era precisely. Even the breakfast cereals that Danny eats are authentic to the period. For vintage Detroit flavor, tune in to Beautiful Music.

Click here for a radio interview with author Michael Zadoorian.

Michigan Mysteries

Summer People     Aaron Stander     (2000)

Color Tour     Aaron Stander     (2006)

And seven additional titles 

The sand dunes, the sunsets, the resiny scent of pine forests: Michiganders will recognize the setting of Aaron Stander’s series of murder mysteries set in the northwest section of the Lower Peninsula, around the tip of the little finger of the hand, along the shores of Lake Michigan.

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The main detective in these novels is Sheriff Ray Elkins, a rumpled middle-aged former professor of criminal justice from downstate who has retreated to the North Woods where he was raised. He’s surrounded by a distinctive cast of year-round residents, who disdain the vacationers renting beach houses during the glorious warm months.  

In the series debut, Summer People, Elkins suspects links between a murder and three subsequent unusual deaths. Stander’s plot is nicely complex, and his characters come to life quickly and believably. The Lake Michigan images are spot on: “Ray paused at the door, looked out at the lake. He could make out the silhouette of a distant ore carrier steaming north to the Straits. From that height he could see the earth’s curve across the horizon and the long line of waves moving toward shore—there was a sense of rhythm and harmony in the scene.” (70) 

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In the next novel, Color Tour, it’s autumn in the Mitten State, the summer people have departed, and an elderly resident discovers a young man and woman murdered on a Lake Michigan beach. Since the dead woman was a teacher at a nearby private school, Sheriff Elkins must painstakingly interview a large number of suspects. As the investigation progresses, evidence seems to point to one character, then another and another, in an entertainingly indirect way. Though I did guess the surprise of the subplot early on, the murderer was a mystery to me until the end. 

The many state references will tickle those who, like me, love our nation’s third (Great Lakes) coast. Small Michigan details drop in on almost every page, as in this description of a minor character in Summer People: “A string tie hung on his chest: A Petoskey stone cut in the shape of the Michigan mitten was centered on the two strands of the tie.” (144) And the folks Up North do appreciate delicacies from other parts of the state. For instance, in Color Tour, a detective is sent south to check out some evidence with the words, “’If you have time on your way out of Ann Arbor, here’s a few things I need from Zingerman’s Deli.’” (152)  

I’m sad to report, however, that these two novels desperately needed a copy editor and a proofreader to catch typos, wrong words, awkward phrasings, and inconsistencies, which distract from otherwise competent writing. I still plan to read more in the Sheriff Ray Elkins series, the seven additional titles of which are 

Deer Season (2009)

Shelf Ice (2010)

Medieval Murders (2011)

Cruelest Month (2012)

Death in a Summer Colony (2013)

Murder in the Merlot (2015)

Gales of November (2016)

Two Multi-Biographies

The Kelloggs:  The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek     Howard Markel     (2017)

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In the small southwestern Michigan city of Battle Creek, two brothers distinguished themselves in separate but related arenas. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), a physician and author, established the Battle Creek Sanitarium (“the San”) in 1878, treating thousands of patients and promoting some surprisingly prescient wellness regimens on both dietary and exercise fronts. Will Keith Kellogg (1860-1951) founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company (now the Kellogg Company) in 1906, revolutionizing breakfast foods through manipulation of ingredients and industrial mass production.

Both brothers were raised as Seventh-Day Adventists and sought, at least early in their careers, to advance the tenets of this faith, which encourages regular physical exercise and prohibits meat, tobacco, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. John and Will experimented extensively to find food products that would be acceptable to Adventists and that would also encourage “biologic living” in the general population. Two strong-willed characters, they frequently clashed, and Will finally left his position as business manager of the San to go national with corn flakes, the cereal that seems to have been a joint invention. In the 1920s, John became involved with the eugenics movement and set up the Race Betterment Foundation; medical historian Howard Markel treats frankly the brutal racism inherent in eugenics theory, now scientifically discredited. Although John’s Sanitarium buildings were sold off in 1942, Will’s food empire continues to this day, as does the humanitarian WK Kellogg Foundation that he created with his massive profits.

In researching this book, Markel did not have access to the many private documents that Will Kellogg placed in a highly restricted archive at the WK Kellogg Foundation, yet this dual biography is exhaustive, drawing on numerous other archival sources. I was especially taken with Markel’s background information on nineteenth-century dietary, public health, and medical practices and with his explanations of the grain-processing machinery that the Kelloggs invented by trial and error. I decided to overlook occasional outlandish analogies. (One painful example: Will was “slower to pardon than most glaciers used to melt.” 336) The Kelloggs is not only a lively and fair-minded story about two dynamic, flawed men but also an absorbing chronicle of their era.

Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas    Donna M. Lucey     (2017)

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If you like Gilded Age gossip, this is a multi-biography that you may want to read. I thought it would be focused primarily John Singer Sargent’s relationship with four of his female subjects, whose portraits are widely known and reproduced:  Elsie Palmer, Sally Fairchild, Elizabeth Chanler, and Isabella Stewart Gardner. (That’s Elizabeth Chanler on the cover of the book.) Sargent painted portraits of these wealthy American women between 1888 and 1922, but in fact his contact with them outside his professional role was fairly limited.

So . . . what this book does offer is a view into the excesses that the upper classes indulged in during a period of American industrial expansion and political corruption. Oddly, the chapter that is supposed to be about Sally Fairchild is devoted almost entirely to the biography of her sister, Lucia, whose portrait Sargent did not paint. My favorite section was the one on Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose private art collection became the famed art museum in Boston that bears her name. Do watch out for typos and small errors in this book as well as in the Kellogg book reviewed above.