Grand River and Joy is Susan Messer’s sensitive, well-crafted novel about Jewishblack relations in 1967 Detroit. Tracking the families of a Jewish wholesale shoe salesman and his black tenant, Grand River and Joy explores tensions between marginalized people with different skin color, focusing on conflicts and loyalty between politically progressive, working class urban Jews and their suburban, upwardly mobile relatives; between secular and religious family members, between husbands and wives, children and parents. Characters are distinct and well-defined, and clashing worlds of suburban racial fear, racism, anti-Semitism, urban loyalty, progressive politics and open-mindedness, desire for sanctuary, and the rebelliousness of youth living with and without privilege, are honestly portrayed. The Jewish protagonist, Harry Levine, and his black tenant, Curtis, are both mentches: living with duty, fear, restriction, compassion, and generosity as their paths intersect with energies leading to the 1967 race riots in Detroit.
Messer’s writing is dense, delicate, and charged, revealing racial and economic arguments that will be familiar to many of us.