Friday, March 15, 2019

Post # 40

Quote for the Day: "Anybody who lives in Detroit lives blues sometimes, if not all the time."
                                  Pat Halley, reporter for the Fifth Estate. 1973


We Hope for Better Things
by Erin Bartels

There is a sentence in the Author's Note at the back of this debut novel that goes to the heart of what Bartels wanted to accomplish in this richly portrayed, deeply felt generational novel. As she wrote: "It was an attempt to reckon with something that could not be reconciled." And still can't. But that does not make the book a failure. Instead, it is a brave, noble, heart-lifting, soul-grabbing portrait of the deep and enduring pain racism has inflicted on individuals, marriages, families, and society.

Newspaper reporter Elizabeth Balsam's world is never the same after she agrees to meet a man at the Lafayette Coney Island. The gentleman turns out to to be Black and he presents Elizabeth with a 1960s vintage professional photographer's camera and a stack of photographs he would like Elizabeth to return to a Nora Balsam who lives on a remote farm in Lapeer County. Elizabeth is not interested until she discovers the photos were taken during the '67 Detroit riots and Nora Balsam is a distant great aunt Elizabeth never met or knew about. Furthermore, the photographer was an African American and Nora's husband, which means there was an interracial marriage in the family no one ever spoke about.

Returning to the newsroom after the meeting Elizabeth is shocked to discover she has been fired. With no immediate job options and a need to get away and reassess her life, she reaches out to her great aunt who invites her up to the farm.  A getaway that was meant to be for a week or two turns into months. Nora is reticent to talk about her life, marriage, long absent husband, or even look at the photographs.  As Nora and Elizabeth slowly grow closer together the story of Nora's marriage emerges as does the story of Mary Balsam who managed the Lapeer farm during her husband's long absence during the Civil War. Mary's husband sent his wife a runaway slave named George to help work the farm. George turns out to be everything Nora's husband isn't -- faithful, hard-working, considerate, resourceful, and a man of character.

The novel progresses in three alternating time periods: the Civil War, the 1960s, and the present day. Each stream of the narrative makes for compelling reading and the author captures and illuminates the corrosive and painful racism of each period that bends the storyline like a malevolent force. The book is filled with unexpected plot twists and surprises. At the core of the novel are three women who had the courage to follow their hearts regardless of the racial biases of the times. Nora and Mary will stay with the reader long after the last page of the book is turned.  

One of the singularly impressive and important Michigan novels to be published this year.
We Hope for Better Things by Erin Bartels. Revell, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2019, $10.99pb, $29.99hb.

A Place for Murder
by Dave Vizard

Nick Steele, a reporter at the Bay City Blade, is facing the prospect of writing an article on a Pinconning farmer who claims to have grown a potato that looks just like former President George W. Bush when a phone call from a friend on Mackinac Island sends him a lot further north than Pinconning. Suzie Alverez, a worker at the Grand Hotel who Steele got to know while working another story has been found brutally murdered. Her body was discovered in the bed of a pickup abandoned on the highway halfway between Mackinaw City and Traverse City. The police are stumped and only identified the body by tracing her breast implant serial numbers to a downstate plastic surgeon. Steele wonders where an illegal alien got the money for breast implants and why. He smells a good story and follows his nose north.

What becomes clear to the Steele and the state police early on is that Ms. Alverez, like many illegal immigrants, was virtually owned by a network of human traffickers in Michigan. Steele traces the dead woman's trail back to the Michigan Thumb where hundreds of aliens are smuggled from farm to farm where they are kept in near enslavement working off the debt owed to the smugglers who brought them to this country. It looks like Ms. Alverez was unwillingly assigned to work at a Traverse City bordello when she was killed.

Dave Vizard has written a tight and involving mystery that realistically portrays the terrible cost in human suffering illegal aliens will endure to improve their lives and the human predators who make their living off the suffering of those migrants who live outside the law. The author is a former newspaper reporter and he clearly hasn't lost his reporting skills as he clearly and professionally weaves the plight of illegal aliens within the narrative, yet leaves the impression with at least this reader that many farmers in the Thumb would have trouble operating their large farms without migrant help.

This is a very satisfying mystery featuring interesting and likable characters.  The mystery touches on very topical and locally tender societal and legal issues, and although the death of Ms. Alverez is solved the greater issue of what to do about illegal aliens and their treatment both in and outside the law is obviously left unanswered.  And like all good fiction, the reader is left confronting an issue that defies simple, morally correct solutions, and refuses to go away.

A Place for Murder by Dave Vizard. Independently published, 2018, $14.95.

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February 1, 2020 Post #51

Quote for the Day: "(During the 1880s) the only toiletries north of Saginaw were mustache wax and alkali soap." Russell McKee. Aud...