A tale of a city and family in flux, The Turner House is a gripping, nuanced reading, heralding the arrival of a major talent.
The Turner HousePublisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 341 pages
Author: Angela Flournoy
Publication date: 2015-04
The Turner House is an ambitious family saga set in Detroit’s crumbling East Side. Like many postwar African Americans, Francis and Viola Turner left the American South in search of a better life. Francis found work in Detroit as a truck driver for Chrysler. There he and Viola raised 13 children. When The Turner House opens, those children are adults, facing difficult decisions about their ailing mother and the family home. A tale of a city and family in flux, The Turner House is a gripping, nuanced reading, heralding the arrival of a major talent.
Although an exact year is never stated, a helpful Turner family tree and sidelong references to a corrupt mayor place events at or around 2006. (Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s reign concluded in prison.) The hipsters have yet to arrive with their tattoos, artisanal liquors, and pasture-raised burgers. Francis Turner has died. A series of strokes has forced Viola to move into eldest son Cha Cha’s (Charles) Franklin Village home.
Now the Turner children must decide what to do with the family home on Detroit’s East Side. The house, on Yarrow Street, stands between vacant fields, increasing blight, and worst of all, it carries a mortgage exceeding its worth.
Cha Cha is the family leader. In adolescence he was visited by a "haint", or ghost, who tried to drag him out the window. The haint continues visiting Cha Cha, a source of increasing distress for an otherwise logically inclined man. Matters reach a crisis point when Cha Cha, like his father a trucker for Chrysler, is run off the road by the haint, whose appearance in the truck’s cab blinds him. In the resulting accident, Cha Cha breaks multiple bones and must undergo a psychological evaluation before returning to work.
Flournoy wisely avoids writing about 13 adult children, their partners, children and in some cases, grandchildren. Instead, she fleshes out Cha Cha, Troy, the 12th child, and Lelah, the 13th and youngest. Interludes from Cha Cha’s wife Tina, Viola, and family friend David Gardenhire round out the story, as do flashbacks to Viola and Francis’s early married life. The plot is an intricate assembly job, akin to manufacturing the Chryslers Francis and Cha Cha drive across the country.
The Turners are an intense lot tending toward addiction. Francis drank. Never enough to cause serious trouble, but too much for too long. Viola and Marlene, child number five, collect "vintage", or junk, which they sell at a flea market. Francey, child number two, required bariatric surgery to address morbid obesity. She is now a health nut. Lonnie, child number six, is into drugs. And Lelah is a gambler.
Lelah’s gambling leaves her homeless and unemployed. Early in The Turner House, she takes refuge in the now-empty Turner house. One evening, she heads for the Motor City Casino with a fistful of complimentary buffet tickets and nothing else.
Flournoy is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. In the acknowledgements, she thanks a who’s who of the literary world: Lan Samantha Chang, Elizabeth MacCracken, Marilynne Robinson, ZZ Packer, Alan Gurganus. But writing a scene like Lelah at the Motor City Casino cannot be taught. Given a chip a by lucky gambler, Lelah heads for the roulette table. Over the next two pages Flournoy takes us inside the mind of a gambling addict.
Lelah rapidly wins over $300. Addiction holds her in its grip: instead of cashing out, she stays put, betting away every penny. It’s a disturbing scene readers won’t soon forget.
Troy Turner, child number 12, is a crooked police officer whose addiction is effortless success. Bitterly jealous of Cha Cha’s stability, Troy seeks to emulate his brother—without the necessary hard labor. After his wife leaves him, he moves in with Jillian. Their relationship is volatile; a recent argument was so heated that Jillian, an asthmatic, had a near-fatal attack.
Troy never does anything illegal while in uniform, but he’s always looking to earn a quick buck. Past investments in pyramid schemes and wineries have failed. Now he’s pushing Jillian to purchase the Turner home on a short sale.
Flournoy works in a great deal of Detroit’s racist housing history. Cha Cha and Tina are the first black family to move into Franklin Village. When Lelah’s grandson is born, the paternal grandparents throw a baby shower at their Grosse Pointe home, occasioning Francey’s acid commentary:
Francey had made a very Francey-like comment about how times had surely changed, because she could remember when a black family couldn’t even buy a house in Grosse Pointe thanks to their now infamous point system. Rob’s parents looked her blankly and changed the subject.
Francey refers to a practice enforced by the Grosse Pointe Property Owners Association. Realtors were forced to give the names of prospective buyers to the Association, who hired private investigators to fill out detailed questionnaires regarding the buyer’s race, income level, appearance, and level of home maintenance. The Property Owners Association tallied the answers based on a point system; specific racial groups received certain point values. Blacks were excluded entirely.
In Middlesex, another great book about Detroit, Grosse Pointe native and Greek-American Jeffrey Eugenides wrote of the Point System: "Over the barrier of the Point System, my father managed to get us a house in Grosse Pointe. "
Most of The Turner House focuses on Cha Cha, Troy, and Lelah. But Flournoy takes readers back to Francis and Viola Turner’s early married lives in the postwar South. When Francis leaves Arkansas for Detroit, he plans to send for Viola and the infant Cha Cha. City life is a shock, literally freezing, its impersonal populace overwhelming. Francis begins drinking in earnest. A year passes. Jobs come and go. Humiliated by failure, Francis neglects to write Viola.
Back in Arkansas with the newborn Cha Cha, Viola is forced to work for a white family as a housemaid. She is paid little; the commute requires two segregated buses. In 1945 Francis reunites with Viola and they move north together.
Although not a Detroit native, Flournoy has spent time in the city. She nails the little details conferring authenticity: characters drink Faygo, a soda beloved by the city’s inhabitants. Nobody eats just a hot dog. They head for the Coney Island, a Detroit specialty. These Greek-owned greasy spoons (written with utmost affection) serve hot dogs smothered in wonderfully heartburn-inducing chili. Francis Turner’s burial suit, a blue pinstripe from Hudson’s Department Store, was one of the store’s signature men’s garments. When Lelah prepares corned beef, Flournoy notes the "story of Black Detroiters and corned beef is nearly as fraught with racial tension as the story of the Pilgrims and corn."
Clocking in at 341 pages, The Turner House is reminiscent of other family/city sagas: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the aforementioned Middlesex, all stories of places and their inhabitants. Even if all you know of Woodward Avenue comes courtesy of Bob Seger, even if 8 Mile is only a movie title to you, do yourself a favor and read The Turner House. Once you open its pages, you won’t be able to put it down.