Cha-Cha Turner is seeing ghosts again. The first time it happened he was a child, just moved into his own room. Back then, there were seven willing witnesses in his watching brothers and sisters. But now he is an old man in his mid-60s, and everyone thinks he should know better. So Cha-Cha is sent by his insurance company to see a psychiatrist.
The eldest of the Turner children, Cha-Cha has always been the responsible one, the surrogate parent to his siblings, the caretaker of, first, his alcoholic father, Francis, and now his ill, bedridden mother, Viola. “You have a position within your family that affords you a lot of respect but not much true friendship, or a sense of individuality,” Cha-Cha’s shrink says to him. “The ghost, or the memory of it, has bothered you your whole life, but it’s also made you feel extraordinary, chosen.”
As Cha-Cha’s psychiatrist encourages him to analyze his past to discover what lies underneath these ghost sightings, Cha-Cha is met with a wide variety of disparagement from his brothers and sisters. They do not see his need for self-discovery. If the psychiatrist “is encouraging you to do anything other than get over it she’s wasting your money,” his next oldest Turner sibling tells him. “And what does it matter to you now, old as you are, that your daddy drank too much and your mama delegated too much onto you?”
Viola, Cha-Cha’s mother immobilized from a stroke, now lives with Cha-Cha and his family. But the second mortgage Viola took out years ago on the Turner family house is coming due, and she doesn’t have the money to pay for it. The Turner siblings call a meeting to decide what to do about the house but, like most families, their meeting ends in disagreement and a desire to eat.
This present-day story of the adult Turner children grappling with the imminent foreclosure of their childhood home is intercut with the story of their parents, Viola and Francis, young and newly married in the South. Here are the careful nuances of married life, sharply observed. Author Angela Flournoy beautifully draws the two major couple relationships: Francis and Viola in the past, their son Cha-Cha and his wife, Tina, in the present.
For Viola and Francis, the first year of their marriage was fraught with difficulty: After Francis migrated north to Detroit to work—the plan being that he would send money to Viola until he had saved enough for her to move up and join him—Francis did not write home for a whole year. Viola began to believe, as everyone else in the town whispered behind her back, that Francis had abandoned her. Cha-Cha, the eldest, was the only child born at the time; could his ghost be the memory of the experience of all that, we wonder?
Here, too, we have the sharp, indelible moments, specific to each child, that shape his or her perceptions of each parent, each sibling. Cha-Cha’s singular memory of Francis is the moment his father, drunk, peed on his head. But in contrast, Troy, the youngest boy, has a much warmer image of his father: Troy grew up during a stage of Francis’ life where “it was if his father had finally figured out the value of sharing his time with his children.” It is as if each grew up in a different family. And each remembers, too, the small youthful tortures of other siblings, carried into adulthood to overshadow sibling relationships.
Now adults, some siblings have addictions. Some have affairs. Some have children. Some have successful jobs. One has just been evicted and is squatting in the old Turner family house. But all feel the weight of history weighing down on them, making them feel like they should be able to do better, be more. “Remember, Mama and Daddy’s parents and grandparents were sharecroppers,” says one Turner daughter, “and their great-grandparents were probably born slaves . … What’s a big family and crummy job in Detroit when you’re only two generations or so out of the fields?”
This legacy—slavery, Jim Crow, the awful dearth of safe jobs available to black men of Francis’ generation, the legal barriers put in place which prevented blacks from buying property and shunted them into the projects—is one of the many ghosts haunting this novel. Through Flournoy’s depiction of the struggles against racism that Francis and Viola faced, you see what a tremendous achievement it was for a black man and woman to triumph over all this and buy a house, and suddenly the Turner house—the necessity not to lose it—means so much more.
“You can’t talk about the history of Detroit without talking about housing discrimination,” Flournoy acknowledges in her postscript to The Turner House. The story of black Americans of the elder Turners’ generation is the Great Migration north after slavery during Jim Crow; the white flight from the cities where the new blacks settled; and, most damagingly, the shutting out of resources to those newly black areas, cutting their chances of success.
Epic, ambitious and strikingly executed, The Turner House is an impressive debut novel. In the grand tradition of family dramas by the late Bebe Moore Campbell, it is lively and entertaining, with subtle humor and engaging voice. Flournoy manages the difficult feat of skillfully telling the stories of 13 children, their parents and accompanying spouses and love interests in an irresistible style. Here we have a deeply satisfying portrayal of relationships among those to whom we, for better or worse, are related by blood.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.