By Tonja Fox
Chevy in the Hole (Henry Holt; March 15, 2022) is a thought-provoking and emotional debut from Kelsey Ronan. Labeled as a love letter to Flint, Michigan, this novel portrays the city through the eyes of its residents, its fighters. Ronan confidently takes us back and forth between the city’s tumultuous past and the onset of the water crisis in 2014.
The beginning of the novel introduces us to present day Gus, who is struggling to remain sober. He moves back to his hometown of Flint and meets Monae while volunteering at an urban farm. The book centers on these two characters and their families – one black and one white – tracing their history in the city. I appreciated Ronan’s storytelling and how she deftly intertwines Gus and Monae’s ancestors in the past (but unbeknownst to them in the present day.)
History lessons are quietly infused in the background while furthering the narrative – the title itself is a reference to the old Chevrolet factory location in downtown Flint, now revitalized as a park. Gus’ great-grandmother helps feed the strikers in the pivotal GM sit-in strike (1937). Monae’s great-aunt is at the Holiday Inn the night drummer Keith Moon drives a car into the swimming pool (1967). Monae’s uncle participates in the sleep-in on the lawn of City Hall (1967) and must decide how far he is willing to take a stand against housing segregation.
In the present we see Monae and Gus face the challenges of a fledgling relationship while their city falls apart around them. We see their struggles as they pursue their dream of a community garden and their humanity as Gus reaches his breaking point.
Setting the novel against the backdrop of the Flint water crisis is interesting and heart-wrenching. And yet I still found so much to root for in this book – Gus, Monae, and the city of Flint itself. I desperately wanted Gus to stay clean and break the cycle of dead-beat men in his family tree. I sincerely hoped Monae would find happiness and purpose in her beloved city. And despite knowing the real-life outcome of the water crisis, I wanted to see Flint overcome and rise from the ashes.
Chevy in the Hole manages to personalize Flint and its residents not with pity but with hope. Ronan is a compelling writer – I highly recommend this complex and beautiful novel.
Kelsey Ronan grew up in Flint, Michigan. Her work has appeared in Lit Hub, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Kenyon Review and elsewhere. She lives in Detroit and teaches for InsideOut Literary Arts. Chevy in the Hole is her first novel.