Every year, the Seattle Public Library chooses one book to headline its “Seattle Reads” program. The idea is to get as many copies of a single title into as many hands as possible, to bring the author to as many of Seattle’s neighborhoods as possible in a single week, and to examine a book thoroughly. It’s a noble idea, and it raises interesting questions about place and readership: Does Ballard, say, read a book differently than Rainier Valley? How does a city read?
This year’s selection seems to have been chosen to put that question to the test. Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, was published two years ago, but it addresses issues this city is wrestling with now. Set in Detroit during the financial collapse of 2008, The Turner House is about the adult children of a large family—13 kids, though we really spend time with only a handful of them—who must decide what to do with the family home, which is worth so little that burning it down would probably be profitable.
People who complain that literary fiction is out of touch with the concerns of the working class are sleeping on this book. We follow the Turners through the 20th century. As black Americans, they have to fight to enjoy the same American dream enjoyed by the white working class: the police are always watching them, hoping for a misstep; they work harder to earn the same jobs and financial benefits than a white family of the same income bracket would come to expect. When the financial crisis arrives and wipes out that American dream for everyone in the 99 percent, the Turners are a little less surprised than white families, but they’re still hurting.
Like any good novel firmly rooted in a specific place and time, The Turner House develops a certain universality. The Seattle of 2017 will very likely see itself in the Detroit of this book. We too are seeing the working class being pushed out of a city. We’re witnessing the results of systemic racism in policing, education, and economics. We’re living with a mental-health system that ignores those most in need. The story that Flournoy tells with this family—a haunted house story, really, of a different kind—is exactly the story we need to read right now, because it’s exactly the story we’re living right now.
Flournoy is in town May 8–11 to read from The Turner House and to talk with Seattle communities about the book. On the evening of the 8th, she’s reading at the Columbia branch of the library; on the 9th, she’s at the U District and Ballard branches; the 10th brings her to the Southwest branch and the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute; and on the 11th she reads at the Central Library downtown. All events are free; all are welcome.
More details at spl.org/audiences/adults/seattle-reads. Paul Constant is co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage at seattlereviewofbooks.com.