Saturday, May 30, 2015

Book Reviews: The Turner House

The Turner House
by Angela Flournoy
Every now and then you run across a first time novelist that writes something so true to life that you are surprised that this is their first novel. Angela Flournoy is such a writer. The Turner House flows very easily and doesn't take a long time to read. It has a huge cast but some people are more closely or lovingly detailed than others. But even the people who just pop in and out without saying or doing much are still well crafted. There are people like that in life of course. An aunt's nephew whom you only see at weddings and funerals turns out to be a rising film producer. A peripatetic cousin who married someone overseas comes back with three kids and no place to stay. Say you're not doing anything with your finished basement are you? Or maybe a younger sibling moves halfway across the country. 

Although they're always polite they make it crystal clear that they would just as not be caught up in any family business and refuse to discuss their own. Don't call them and they certainly won't call you. The other interesting thing about family is that as much as our gender and sexuality and whatever specific combination of genes we got from Mom and Dad influence us, so does our birth order, early responsibilities and old jealousies and resentments. People can reach adulthood and remain, by choice or not, trapped in these roles. The older siblings may feel greater levels of responsibility for everyone, whether or not they're truly capable of bearing those burdens. The younger siblings may have come along at a time when the parents had mellowed out in terms of discipline and so have had an easier time of it. Or the younger siblings may be seething with resentment at having been constantly compared to their older brothers or sisters. The younger ones may reject being told what to do. They could become embittered at people automatically assuming that they need help or oversight. People enter these roles and often embrace them as part of their identity, even if they are harmful. 

The family rebel, often younger, may spend decades needlessly struggling against restrictions or expectations simply because that's what she does. The older brother might worry himself into life threatening problems with hypertension or cardiac disease because he's always trying to ensure that everyone else has their stuff together. Or maybe the older siblings are not actually more reliable people but rather instead are serious control freaks who really get off on exercising authority. It all depends on your perspective. Of course families also provide a sense of love and protection. A healthy family is the first place that we learn to love and get along with people, even when they may work our last nerve from time to time. That sense of affection and contentment is critical. Who else but an older sister might safely call her precociously developed younger sister "Jug-a-lug" and affectionately tease her about not being able to run high school track for fear of putting her eyes out? Years later when the nickname is shortened to "J", curious nieces and nephews might innocently ask why everyone calls their aunt "Aunt J" when her given name doesn't even have a "J" in it.

And there are times when an uncle or aunt, not limited by the parental role, can provide some good advice to a niece or nephew, advice a parent might never give. An aunt or uncle can be a good sounding board when you have some things you'd rather not share with your parents. On the other hand there are some aunts and uncles you're better off not knowing.

The Turner House brings all of this and more into the story. Ultimately it's a slice of life story about a large extended family which is based in Detroit. It jumps back and forth in time between the 1930s/1940s when Francis Turner moves to Detroit from Arkansas before bringing his wife Viola with him and 2008 when Francis has long since died. By this point Viola is sickly. She's had strokes. Her mental and physical capacity is declining noticeably. Being finally unable to care for herself she has moved in with her oldest son Charles (everyone calls him Cha-Cha) and Charles' wife Tina. Viola is not really happy about this situation.

Born in 1944, Charles has entered senior citizen status. He's always been the most responsible one in the family, who helped look after his twelve younger brothers and sisters, sometimes whether they wanted his guidance or not. Now Cha-Cha and the rest of his siblings, many of whom are spread out across the country, must decide what to do with the family home. It's still in their mother's name though Cha-Cha has power of attorney. Thanks to bad advice from another daughter Viola refinanced the east side home and now owes $40,000 on a house that's worth $4,000 at most. Meanwhile the youngest child, the daughter Lelah, born in 1967, is struggling with a gambling addiction and has lost her job and home. Unwilling to ask her daughter, her ex, or her siblings, nieces or nephews for help and with no place else to go, Lelah moves into the abandoned family home. Lelah really doesn't want to impose on her daughter and thus lose her relationship with her grandson. Reading the description of the decline of some neighborhoods interspersed with the occasional optimism of those people still living there was very true to life.  

The book focuses primarily on Lelah and Cha-Cha and their different perspectives and problems. There's a hint of the supernatural as Cha-Cha is convinced he's seeing ghosts or "haints" as he would put it. He saw a haint or claimed to have done so as a young boy in the family home. But anyone he mentions it to now thinks Cha-Cha just needs to man up and/or get some rest. "Encouraged" by his employer to go see a psychiatrist he finds that that choice might open up a different can of problems. Another prominent sibling is Troy, an ambitious police officer and youngest son. Troy has big plans for the family home and is frustrated that no one, especially Cha-Cha, seems to take him seriously. From what I've seen in some families this is a common complaint of the youngest siblings but as oldest I have little sympathy for that sort of pointless whining.

This story book is matter of fact about whether we like it or not, everything must change. One day you will find yourself needing help or looking back over the years and wondering where all the time went. This book is also a love letter to the city of Detroit and to family. It examines how for good and bad the past continues to influence how we perceive ourselves and how we relate to others. You will probably recognize some of your own family or friends in this story, no matter where you were raised or how you grew up. That said it is very rooted in the Black Detroit experience. It shows that experience as universal. I am very happy to have read this book.
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