When Angela Flournoy visited her grandparents’ Detroit home in 2009, no one had been living there for quite some time—yet it remained crystallized in perfect condition. After her grandmother moved out, her uncles continued to maintain the house as neighboring East Side homes crumbled into disrepair and squatters proliferated. Flournoy recalls the eerie sensation that time had frozen within the house, even as the surrounding city, corroded by violence and economic downfall, had completely transformed.
“It made me start thinking about the whole concept of the American dream, and where home ownership comes into play,” she explains. “What happens when you do the right things, and pay your bills, but the city conspires against you?”
That’s a question Flournoy explores in her debut, The Turner House, an intergenerational family saga set in present-day Detroit that also tracks how the Turners came to own this house 50 years ago. For the 13 now-grown Turner children, the house isn’t merely a childhood home—it’s a crucial link between 13 very different adults. But the East Side has declined; the house value has plunged. Their ill mother, Viola, has moved to the suburbs. There’s seemingly no point in holding on to the house, yet each of the 13 Turners has their own reasons for wanting to keep it. Lelah, the “baby” of the family now in her forties, has been evicted from her apartment due to a gambling addiction and takes up residence in the now-abandoned house. Troy, a disillusioned policeman, wants to dupe his mother into short-selling the house to his girlfriend. And Cha-cha, the oldest, has been recently visited by a ghost he’d seen at the house as a child, drawing him back there 40 years later.
The book opens as Cha-cha, who drives trucks for Chrysler, spots the ghost on the shoulder of the road, leading to an accident: “Then blue light, that familiar, flickering and fear-inducing blue from the big room, filled his cab.…he heard a fluttering, similar to the fluttering that had roused him from his sleep so many years before,” writes Flournoy. “His old haint had found him and almost destroyed him in a matter of seconds.”
Part of the reason Cha-cha is so bent out of shape by this experience is that he prides himself on his hyperrationality and sense of control. “Cha-cha very much wants to be in control, and fancies himself in control, and the haint is this thing he can’t control,” Flournoy says. Seeking answers, he combs the Internet for articles about haint sightings and starts seeing a psychologist—yet the resulting information leads to infinitely more questions than he started with. Meanwhile, the house is physical proof that the haint did exist. For Lelah, the house is a refuge; for Troy, it’s a potential symbol of power that he’d lacked as one of the family’s many middle children. For Cha-cha, it preserves the “truth” of the haint’s long-ago visit—but as the story progresses, it becomes clear the truth isn’t as objective as he, or anyone else, would like.
As the other characters wrestle with their demons, the narrative flips back to the 1940s, when patriarch Francis Turner moved to Detroit. Francis dreams of becoming a priest, but settles for a job in the automotive industry—reflective of the historical shifts occurring at that time. “Henry Ford was very aggressive about bringing blacks from the South to work in his factories, from the 1920s on—really it was cheap labor,” Flournoy says. As she did more research, she became intrigued by Detroit’s transformation into a “black city.” “It was a white city, and then black people were coming. They were making money, more money than they’d ever made in the South,” she says. “They were having families, so they were just overflowing.” As the story continues, Francis and Viola marry and then buy the house on the current of this shift. “The city seemed like it changed overnight, but it didn’t, because as far as white people leaving—that was the breaking point of years and years,” she says.
Flournoy, who attended the Iowa Writers Workshop and began The Turner House her first year there, was partly motivated to write the book because of the gap in literature about certain facets of the city. “There are very specific things that happened to the black population in Detroit that have never really been written about in fiction,” she notes. Her father—also one of 13—is from Detroit, and she wanted to expose the side of the city that’s not frequently shown on the news. “I wanted to show the place and the people who live there are not just a sum of crime statistics or per capita income; people still have happy lives, people still have very proud lives. Detroit is a very proud city.”
The characters battle through their personal struggles with varying levels of success. Eventually, Cha-cha, Lelah and Troy must confront one another at the Turner house, acknowledge its changes and unravel painful memories from their shared childhoods. But through all this, it’s this pride and resilience that will eventually carry the Turners through.
Miriam Grossman is an editorial intern at Kirkus Reviews and a graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course and Johns Hopkins University.