Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

There are some stories that are so familiar, you stop and wonder if it is about someone you know, the telling and the nuiances so known that you barely stop to think about the subtilies.

Such is the debut novel, The Turner House, that intersects a pivotal time in our country with a previous pivotal time, wrapped in the tapestry of history, and weaves  tale that is relevant, important, cultural, and meaningful.

We meet this solid Detroit family against the backdrop of a crumbling city, the undercurrent of the recession, the dashed dreams of wanderers for other suns, and the hope in a promising young man from Chicago who has the audacity to make them think of possibilities. Each of the thirteen children in the family come with their individual stories and connections, some remained in Detroit, others fled the decay for a chance somewhere else to form their own identity, all held a place in their heart for the house that was home.

The themes of family, home, individuality, place, and what makes one feel connected, are all repleat in this novel by Angela Flournoy.  The writing is descriptive, inviting in alternating place between 2008 Detroit and 1944 Arkansas. One can close their eyes and envision the gamble everyone took on a new possibility, the quest for a better life, for a chance to live out one's destiny.

In the novel, we center on Cha Cha, the oldest son of Francis and Viola Turner and the youngest sister, Lelah. The bookend children are also representative of different times and places in the family's story. The oldest carried the mantle of responsibility and being the solid one, even in the shielding of his father's weaknesses from his younger siblings, yet all carried a trace of this unmet need.

We hope with them, we become disappointed with them, we cheer for them, and then we cry with them when we realize that the reason their story seems so familiar is that the Turner House could have just as easily been The Smith House or the Brent House or any other name of family who set out for something different to be met with squaller, at times, and conditions just as bad or worse than what they left. Yet, what held them together was this glimmer into the future where one without a high school diploma or only that, would go on to be the patriarch or matriarch of some with multiple degrees, lands, and homes.

The nuggets of wisdom on the book, like the advice Viola gave her daughters that a "woman without options is waiting for a man to come along and ruin her," were a bit of a precursor to the womanist movement that invited this first generation of northern black women to seek out opportunities beyond the sharecropping or housecleaning of a past generation. We encounter the very real people who made those quests, like my family, from Arkansas to Michigan, and meet their dreams in the  homesteads they established, the educations they procured for their children, and the joy in multiple generations that gather for a matriarch's birthday. They may have "loved everyone but themselves" but in the end, their love carried them past stolen garages from a drugged out neighbor hollowing out the shells of East Detroit left behind with the pirated promises in homes they once could not own.

Angela Flournoy has solidified herself as a promising young writer, a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, with her ability to bring the unspoken feelings of black men to life. She invites us to listen to the heart and emotional tug of those who want something for their life but are tangled by expectations. She allowed them and us to free ourselves and simply hope, for that is what all the tomorrow's bring, it springs eternal.

                                      
◘Tayé Foster Bradshaw* is an avid reader, writer, and latte drinker living in a suburb of St. Louis. Like the writer, she attended the University of Iowa (not the workshop) and like the characters, has family that migrated from Arkansas to Michigan (not Detroit).

*The writer's pen name in celebration of her foremother's and late father's nickname for her


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