A review of Angela Flournoy’s novel The Turner House, a 2015 National Book Award Finalist.
by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader
Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House, left me feeling ambivalent, hopeful, encouraged and nostalgic. I liked her novel but I felt that it didn’t work hard enough to envision southern black life in 1945, to capture an honest and complete snapshot of Detroit. At times TTH read more like a passenger on a train bound for Somewhereville, riding through a Detroit train depot, snapping phone pictures while simultaneous trying to stake awake.
The (Turner) house serves as a symbol for all that is wrong with the dysfunctional Turner family: loss of stability, instability, isolation, community change. Flournoy said in an interview with Miriam Grossman of Kirkus Reviews that she supposed her novel would explore “very specific things that happened to the black population in Detroit that has never really been written about in fiction. I wanted to show the place and the people who live there are not just a sum of crime statistics or per capita income.” The following excerpt places the novel squarely at the doorstep of Detroit’s current issue:
Problem with black folks is that we’re too quick to cut our losses and let white folks decide what happens in the cities we live in. Sure the mayor is black, damn near the whole council is black, but we don’t have the real money or property. That’s how they keep us on the run (203).
Good stuff. I also liked the WWII flashbacks to Detroit’s Hastings Street, Paradise Valley days, and post-Reconstruction Arkansas. Here, Flournoy’s sense of nostalgia is easy and mellow, but I would’ve liked to see more of the violent, racialized reality of southern life rather the subtle allusions to black life in 1945. Most southern blacks were seduced by Ford’s $5-a-day wage promise, many sought peaceful refuge from vicious, unchecked, racist violence. Flournoy gives us none of that, just under-analyzed snapshots hurried away into pointless narratives which seem to go busily everywhere and nowhere. We get no real sense of the duality of (street) danger and (economic) vibrancy for which Hastings Street is famous. (WHERE IS JOHNNY LEE HOOKER?) The colorful ambiguity, the effervescent charm, and the ambivalent dynamics are never fully explored nor do we ever truly understand how the Gotham Hotel (inasmuch as why black entertainers visited this particular hotel) could boast such regular prominent guests as Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, B.B. King, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Count Basie, Langston Hughes, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the inimitable Billie Holiday.
Flournoy’s research for her novel included Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit and Elaine Latzman Moon’s Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1918-1967 as source material. Sugrue’s study gives some attention to the area known as Black Bottom, who the people were and what the area was about. Moon is an excellent source, too, but there are other sources as well for anyone thinking about Flournoy’s topic beyond her book. The digital archives at Wayne State University’s Walter Reuther Library is loaded with primary sources on black (and white) life in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.
I found my family story in this novel, particularly the men in my family, how they came to the north for industrial jobs, leaving behind families of wives, sons, and daughters, never to return, seduced by big lights, equal rights, sturdy paychecks, Paradise Valley, and sexy, sultry women like Odella Wither. The anguishing alienation of migrant dislocation is captured quite well in TTH (i.e page 112). Even with its minor flaws and mistakes, The Turner House is still worth the read.