7 Books That Tell the Stories of Flint and Detroit
Kelsey Ronan, author of "Chevy in the Hole," recommends literature that depicts a full and nuanced portrait of the two Michigan cities
Flint, my hometown, and Detroit, where I live now, are both underrepresented in literature and disproportionately burdened with the narratives of outsiders. The usual story, the dying city narrative, goes something like this: cars, white flight, deindustrialization, poverty, blight, undrinkable water. This story usually comes with familiar illustrations: ruin porn pictures of abandoned houses picked clean by scrappers and the elements, the graffitied shells of automotive plants, crumpled water bottles. Occasionally a singular plucky, hopeful story breaks through this expected gloom. Resilience can seem like a backhanded compliment.
Seldom are these cities treated to full and nuanced portraits. Their rich histories, their contradictions, how privilege and inequity, pride and grief, hope and rage, can all live next door to each other. As someone who’s spent her life in these cities, and as an avid reader, I’m always craving this: a story that both affirms the community around me and teaches me things; that makes me sit with uncomfortable questions and question my positionality. That’s the kind of story I hoped to tell in Chevy in the Hole, a novel that follows two families in Flint from the 1937 Sit-Down Strike at General Motors to the ongoing water crisis.
There are many books that speak to particular facets of Flint and Detroit’s histories: the rise and fall of the automotive industry, the musical legacies of Motown, garage rock, and techno. There are memoirs of renovating those abandoned houses and delivering water through the crisis. There are novels that anchor themselves in specific moments in time, like Tim Lane’s 1980s bildungsroman Your Silent Face, the historical children’s novels of Christopher Paul Curtis, and Detroit fiction from Joyce Carol Oates and Elmore Leonard to Desiree Cooper and Michael Zadoorian.
The seven books listed below, both fiction and nonfiction, all speak to a greater sweep of history and put the people of Flint and Detroit at their centers.
A history of Detroit through the lens of the Black community, the book begins in the 18th-century with enslaved Black people living as property of French colonizers, then moves through the Underground Railroad, the emergence of the Black middle class, the Great Migration, the uprising of 1967, and the shifts of deindustrialization. Throughout, Boyd weaves labor history, pop culture, sports, and politics. There are especially stirring portraits of some of Detroit’s most celebrated figures, including Motown founder Berry Gordy, Aretha Franklin, and Mayor Coleman Young.
This book set itself a seemingly impossible task: to give a comprehensive study of the water crisis as the news was still breaking and damage still being assessed (indeed, four years after this book was published, the pipes are still being replaced in Flint). Clark’s thoughtful handling of the crisis makes it an invaluable guide to understanding the crisis. She provides the historical context on environmental and institutional racism in Flint, lead and water infrastructure in America. She untangles the Emergency Financial Manager system, wherein the state appoints someone to run the city and strips it of its democratic rights. Her eye, too, is on the activists, from pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha to mothers with sick children, speaking out against the state’s culpability and inaction.
In this memoir, Davis tells the story of her family as part of the Great Migration, leaving Nashville for Detroit, figuring out how to “make a way out of no way.” With an ailing husband and three children, Fannie, the author’s mother, lifts her family into the middle class by running numbers. Davis recounts coming of age in the Black community of the ’60s (the Supremes lived in her neighborhood), but at the core of the book is a portrait of Fannie: a generous, sharp, devout woman who believed in providing the best for her children and in “self-care—long baths, naps, vacations, spending money on herself.” As the backdrop of this family history, Detroit is richly detailed, capturing the swank department stores and glitter of Motown to the tensions of the 1967 uprising and policing.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
In Eugenides’ saga, a family leaves a tiny village on Mount Olympus for Detroit and in the trauma of war and migration, brother and sister become husband and wife. For Calliope to become Cal, that secret moves through generations of the Stephanides family on the east side of Detroit and into Grosse Pointe suburbia. The book sweeps across the 20th century, with Detroit vividly realized at each point, from Ford’s River Rouge plant to the Nation of Islam’s Temple No. 1. Flint even makes a fleeting appearance:
“When a Greek Orthodox church in Flint burned down, Milton drove up and salvaged one of the surviving stained-glass windows.”
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
As widowed Viola Turner’s health declines, her thirteen children have to decide what will be done with her east side house. The novel largely follows the oldest Turner, Cha-Cha, who’s confronting the return of a haint that visited him in childhood, and the youngest Turner, Leah, who’s struggling with addiction, homelessness, and a fraught relationship with her daughter. In flashbacks to the 1940s, we learn Francis Turner left Arkansas and arrived in Detroit with his only pair of shoes and $15 in his pocket, with the terms of Viola following him uncertain. Detroit and generations of Turners each cycle through grief and healing in a story that is told with tenderness and humor.
Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper
Ben Hamper is perhaps best known as the autoworker in Michael Moore’s Roger & Me who describes having a panic attack after being laid off from and hearing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys. In Rivethead, he writes of coming from a long line of General Motors shoprats; of drugs and booze and classic rock radio while working the line; the constant lay-offs; the sorrows and hilarity of being down and out in Flint:
“Detroit as seen backwards through a telescope. The callus on the palm of the state shaped like a welder’s mitt.”
Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis by Andrew Highsmith
Highsmith’s comprehensive study of Flint takes its title from a sign that hung on the razor wire fence at Chevy in the Hole, the Chevrolet factory complex in the middle of Flint that since has been turned to a state park. An analysis of capitalism and public policy in Flint, the book chronicles the city from the birth of General Motors to 21st-century activists working to revitalize communities. It illustrates “the interlocking histories of racial and economic inequality, mass suburbanization, and deindustrialization in modern America.” A dense read that is both intellectually and emotionally demanding, but brings a complex city into clearer focus.