Having grown up in Detroit, it’s no wonder Susan Messer was drawn back to her roots for the setting of Grand River and Joy; she clearly knows her old stomping grounds well. From streetlights to schools to museums and waterfront views, Ms. Messer takes us back to a Detroit simmering with indignation and urban unrest. Packed with social and political detail, it is impressive she was able to flesh it all out in just over two hundred pages.
Riding shotgun as shop owner Harry Levine attempts to navigate the racial turmoil of Detroit, we peer out the passenger side and straight into the boiling pot that ultimately spills over into the race riot of 1967. Through the characters of Harry, his wife Ruth, and the tenants residing above his store, we bear witness to the Jewish/Black relationship and their respective points of view as they move around each other at this juncture in history.
Through sharp dialogue, Susan Messer tackles the origins of the impending riot while revealing her characters’ varied angles of perspective. By fitting the jagged pieces of economic inequality, housing discrimination, black militancy, police brutality, and white flight into the larger puzzle of Detroit’s race relations, Messer brings her readers closer to the frontline of understanding.
Brimming with Detroit’s colorful history, Grand River and Joy holds plenty of “I did not know that” points of interest. Not only does Messer lift by touching on the finer arts and culture of both Judaism and the city, but also doesn’t fear taking us into darker territory with her chapter “Boiler”, which educates on the angrier art of the racial epithet.
Despite the heavy nature of the novel, it achieves in its examination of conscience. Providing each character with a distinct point of view facilitates Messer’s goal of “getting to emotional truth.” Raw and insightful, Grand River and Joy is a literary journey of understanding as it covers this seminal time in Detroit’s history.