“Ain’t no haints in Detroit” is a Turner family mantra that originated on the night Cha-Cha, the oldest of thirteen Turner children, wrestled a ghost in his room on Yarrow Street. While many of the other Turners were convinced of Cha-Cha’s vision, his father, Francis, was not, and coined the phrase. By the time the last Turner child, Lelah, was old enough for it’s usage, the saying was used to end a discussion. If another Turner didn’t buy whatever it was you were trying to sell, they’d stop you in your tracks with a flippant, “c’mon man, ain’t no haints in Detroit.”
The Turner House, by author Angela Flournoy, is about a large African American family and their goings on in Detroit. While most of the book is set in 2008, there are flashbacks to the Turner family beginnings in 1944 when Francis and Viola were newly married. With Cha-Cha on the way, Francis left Viola in Arkansas and went to Detroit to find work. These flashbacks let us know just how close the last twelve Turner children were to never being born.
The beauty of this book is that it is simply about a family. It is not political. It doesn’t revolve around race relations or prejudices, nor does it have an undertone of some greater meaning. It is of a family’s normal dysfunctions and ups and downs. There are divorces, kids, step-kids, and illnesses. There are drunks and gamblers, as well as cops, nurses, and truck drivers. There are fights and break ups; there is love and healing.
While all thirteen kids are peripherally involved, the main characters are Cha-Cha, the haint seeing eldest, and, Lelah, the gambling afflicted youngest. Flournoy seamlessly ties in the stories of the larger family through the more specific trials and tribulations of these two.
At times, the pace of the book is slow and meandering but it honestly tracks the life of a ‘real’ family. Unlike the reality show families we are bombarded with on television, normal family life doesn’t revolve around utter crisis or absolute euphoria all the time. So, too is the Turners’ existence.
One more non-human character that plays a central role is the actual Turner House on Yarrow Road. Sitting empty at the tale’s beginning and upside down financially, the house is the common denominator among all the characters. While they never all lived there at the same time, they all lived there at some time, and it is the thread that sews the family quilt together.
Flournoy does touch briefly and succinctly on what she views as the cause of Detroit’s demise. The removal of resources, she says, started the fall and opened the door to the corruption that finished the city off.
But the Turners, like others from there, are connected to their city and are in their own small ways, making it better. You’ll find yourself rooting for even the most flawed Turner and hoping that the love they share amongst them will see them all through to good and happy lives.
Elizabeth’s rating: 3½ stars
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt