Let me start by saying this is an AMAZING book, successfully jumping timelines and generations in two families from Flint, Michigan and portraying the history of the city in an engaging, emotionally meaningful and factual way. I’m one of those people who paid attention to Flint, Michigan pretty much since I saw Roger and Me years ago and I read the news stories over the course of the devastating, corrupt decisions to change the city’s water source in 2014 with tragic and completely preventable results. The water was not safe. Many residents were affected. Children’s lead levels increased and lies went on and on about the safety of the water, exacerbating the health issues and causing at least 90 deaths. The remediation for this continues, and is expected to be completed in 2022. This period is artfully covered through a young family’s experiences their fears, their flight from Flint, the tension in their relationship and the aftermath, taking us all the way to 2022.
Chevy in the Hole was the site of the huge GM plants, making Chevrolets, auto parts and more. A sit-down strike in the late 1930s is resulted in the recognition of the United Autoworkers transforming it from a group of small locals. The Detroit music scene partially originated in and partially spilled over into Flint. It has had its share of racial conflict/riots, significant urban decay, and what seems like rolling, irreversible economic losses. Flint still struggles, but Ronan gifts us the story of a city that is home to families who made their ways through strikes, plant shut downs, political and racial conflict, weather disasters, water disasters as she weaves the complexity of the and ups and downs of Flint over eighty plus years with the complexity of people, relationships, family, personal loss, and sometimes but not always, personal redemption.
I first listened to the audio version of Chevy in the Hole and it was a beautifully produced/narrated version. But when I realized that characters from different parts of the story were different generations of two different families, popping up as children here, young women working there, deceased grandmothers and ne’er do well stepfathers, I wanted to read it as well. And reading it was equally satisfying. The novel opens in 2014, with August “Gus” Malloy returning home to Flint from Detroit after he dramatically disrupts a six year period of sobriety by taking who knows what drug and collapsing at work (a restaurant) as his manager imagines the negative Yelp reviews and meals he’ll have to comp. As usual, Gus crashes with his long suffering sister Annie. Along the way, Gus volunteers at an urban community farm where he meets Monae, an African American college student intern, helps his mother Rose clean out his grandmother’s house and tries to find his way.
All of these people then populate the book with their relatives, deceased and alive, over different periods in Flint history with each period popping with the stories of its time and its people. Ultimately, the stories of Flint and these families cover from 1937 to 2022. I love Ronan’s take on a famous story about a night of debauchery in 1967 Flint, when Keith Moon of The Who turned twenty-one. That night flashes in and out of the lives of some of characters connected or related to our two central families so you get a pretty good picture of how crazy it was and but through the eyes of these guests who are tangential to the party and central to our story.
We come to understand what shaped Gus and Monae. We find compassion for some pretty unlikeable people along the way even though they caused enough hurt and dysfunction to travel through the generations ping ponging to hit one child and not another, to gift resilience and strength to some and addiction and early death to others, to make some very careful with their feelings and love. And always they are living an an ever changing backdrop of Flint history. Read it. It’s really not hard to follow once you get the rhythm of this exceptional debut. The stories are compelling and entertaining. It is a can’t put it down book.