After moving north from Arkansas during the Great Migration, Francis and Viola Turner and their baby Cha-Cha are able to move into a house of their own in Detroit. Despite racism and white flight, in that house, the Turners raise thirteen children. An experience seeing a haint (ghost) when he was a boy follows Cha-Cha through adulthood. While driving a big rig, the now sixty-five year-old Cha-Cha thinks he sees the haint again, causing a crash and investigation by his company. To make sure Cha-Cha doesn’t have psychological issues that would cause the accident, he’s sent to a therapist who opens his mind up to what it means to be the oldest of thirteen, the patriarch of a needy family full of varying personalities.
The siblings aren’t always kind to Cha-Cha about his time in therapy. Black communities continue to struggle with facing mental health issues and not seeing them as taboo or a weakness. Francey, the second oldest Turner, is a decisive character, a sister who used to try to be the matriarch, allowing herself to get mentally and physically weighed down by each family member’s problems. After she started focusing on herself, she left her siblings to their own issues. That doesn’t mean she has no input about Cha-Cha’s discoveries in therapy:
“That’s really what goes on in therapy? They ask you to drag up a whole bunch of stuff from childhood? I thought that was just on TV. We’re so old! At some point that stuff doesn’t matter no more.”
The biggest issue facing the family currently? Viola, still alive and living with Cha-Cha, thinks she can return to the old Turner house despite being unable to care for herself. It’s 2008 and the back taxes on this Detroit house are $40,000. The value of the house is only $4,000. It’s not that the house is in bad shape, but Detroit is — there are too many square miles and not enough residents to support this mammoth city that was once teaming with life, leading to degradation, increased crime, and a lack of city services (trash, street lights, and reasonable response time from police, EMT, and fire) despite people paying their taxes. Should the Turners let their family home go back to the bank, pool together the $40,000, or come up with a scheme to have a family friend buy it at auction for $4,000 (which is illegal)?
If you’re not familiar with Detroit, a city that is both breath-taking in its culture and strength and a veritable wasteland, check out how one character describes it:
“This isn’t postindustrial, post-white-flight, or post-automobile-boom,” Kyle had said. “It’s like, post-zombie-fucking-apocalypse. This is like after the zombies have turned everyone they could find, and then they burn down the buildings to run out the last survivors — right into their clutches and shit.”
Earlier this year I tried The Turner House as an audiobook, and it did not work for me. I was too focused on trying to keep track of family members’ names. There isn’t just thirteen children and two parents; there are grandchildren and great-grandchildren. While the dynamics of a large family play a role in the, the main characters are Cha-Cha (the eldest) and Lelah (the baby). Readers hear from other characters, but there’s no need to panic about name overload.
Though the title be The Turner House, I’m not sure the novel is about the house at all. In fact, Angela Flournoy’s book reads more like a very long short story. Basically, we get two types of common short stories: one with an arc, and one that is slice-of-life, capturing a moment and not a complete plot. I know that slice-of-life stories really irks some readers, so be aware that The Turner House follows that style. Although I finished the book and felt it was unresolved in many aspects, I also appreciated the realism of not knowing everything, of entering someone’s life and exploring it for a limited amount of time.
Had The Turner House been plot-driven, Flournoy would have a trilogy on her hands, covering Francis and Viola’s migration, the children growing up in the house, and the debate about the current status of the unoccupied Detroit home. I would have preferred the trilogy, as I lean more toward story arcs than slice-of-life. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy The Turner House while I was reading it, but that it doesn’t stick with me as well. I remember moments like images, rather than investment in what happened. And that’s what slice-of-life writing gives you.