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A Review of
We Hope for Better Things
Paperback: Revell, 2019
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Reviewed by Cynthia Beach
The gift of Erin Bartels’ debut novel, We Hope for Better Things, is a long-view on racism, or on the difficulty we seem to have, generation by generation, of loving our neighbor as ourselves. In this time slip novel, we see down the line of sight of racism, the hall of mirrors, the choices and stances—the beautiful and the ugly.
Three female characters serve as viewpoint characters: young Elizabeth, a journalist groping for identity, purpose and faith; Nora, who pays dearly to cross 1960s race lines and who now must find her way; and Mary of the 1860s who rises to the challenge of caring for the other. Bartels assures readers that each character isn’t “wholly a saint or wholly a villain.”
The story begins present day with an old camera and glossies and a request that puts character Elizabeth in a very trying position—as trying as a butterfly breaking its chrysalis.
At a Baker Book House event, Bartels explains her novel with a William Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead.” A history buff, she says, “I’ve been interested in history as long as I can remember. I’m very interested in cause and effect.”
The novel time slips from present day Detroit to 1960s race riots Detroit and from present day Lapeer County to Civil War era.
Bartels had pondered why Detroit in the 60s would ferment extreme unrest. “Why Detroit? Why did they have a riot there? A riot doesn’t happen out of nothing.”
As a self-proclaimed research “stickler,” she says that the depiction of the riots, while fictionalized, are based on facts.
Piece by piece, she neatly stitches the eras together like the yellow quilt character Nora creates. Bartels doesn’t drop stitches here—in this advanced craft move. In a blog, Bartels explains that she wrote the story as it appears, that she didn’t focus on one era at a time. “The connections practically made themselves,” she explained.
Something compelling arises from the deft time slips: questions. Questions and more questions for which the reader must wait. Where’s William? Will Elizabeth grow? What will Mary do about her love for George? And what will come of Nora?
I had a hard time putting the book down for long.
Along with adept craft moves, Bartels’ wordsmithing shines: “A dead light bulb stuck impotently out of its socket and weak daylight struggled through the small transom windows streaked with grime” or “At that moment, on a nondescript tan couch in an impeccably clean living room at Twelfth and Seward, Nora fell in love with the wrong man.”
Some details are just plain delicious: “Mary stood at the open barn door silhouetted by bright morning sunlight, her loose skirts casting a shadow that reached almost to George’s dusty boots.” Part of the cleverness here is the description’s symbolic layer.
Personally, at times I wished for more character descriptions. I couldn’t see some of the minor characters like Nathaniel Balsam, Mary’s husband. In fact, I would have been a game reader had Bartels served up a longer work—maybe like one of James A. Michener’s infamous 1,000-page novels.
Bartels freelances as an editor in the publishing industry. Her spouse, Zachary, also writes and has two novels with Thomas Nelson, Playing Saint and The Last Con.
Later this year, Erin Bartels’ second novel, The Words between Us, will be available. Another time slip story, it concerns a used bookstore owner and her father, who is on the brink of execution.
In We Hope for Better Things, I loved the familiar Michigan setting of Detroit and Lapeer County. It stirred dusty memories of the Motor City and how Grandma Lackie always smiled when she talked about its downtown cable cars and J. L. Hudsons.
The second setting, Lapeer County, anchors the peninsula that juts into Lake Huron, known as Michigan’s Thumb. Sadly in the 1980s, when I lived north of Lapeer, the Thumb had become a land absent of minorities. I came from California and deemed the area shockingly racist—although that may be only about my extended family. My great uncles from Bad Axe were Klan members—perhaps circa the 1940s. My grandfather, when young, wanted to be a member as well and regularly spewed hate. Today, the U.S. Census reports Lapeer and Huron Counties as 96 percent white.
So, what happened to the Thumb, then, if in the decades after the Civil War, according to Bartels, it had been a place for escaped slaves to flourish—some even owning businesses?
The novel title, We Hope for Better Things, may direct us. This title borrows the city of Detroit’s motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”
Bartels’s novel flashes this sobering red alert. We’re still shuffling through the ashes and need—so need—something new to arise.
Cynthia Beach is a long-time creative writing professor at Cornerstone University. She co-founded Breathe Christian Writers Conference and Breathe Deeper, a writing retreat. Her book, Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care is available. Visit her at cynthiabeach.com.