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Grand River and Joy

Praise for the novel

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Readings and book signings
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When I was a young girl, growing up in Detroit, someone told me that Jews and blacks were minority groups. I remember turning this idea over in my mind and thinking that the person who concocted it must be terribly misinformed, because when I looked around my world, the only people I saw were blacks and Jews. Grand River and Joy comes in part from that world, where together we two minority groups lived, went to school, and worked in uneasy proximity, never fully understanding each other, never fully welcomed by the surrounding community.

Praise for the novel

A Guardian readers' pick for the best books about Detroit!

Harry’s well-meaning attempts at appeasement present in microcosm the novel’s central tensions, which are not just between blacks and Jews but between individual identities and group allegiances, between narrowly-defined protective self-interest and the desire to reach out and make connections, and crucially, between staying put and moving away. The times, and the neighborhoods, are changing, and the novel delicately but sharply scrutinizes the discomfort of a community well aware of its own legacy of discrimination and suffering as it rationalizes its own prejudices.

  Rohan Maitzen
Read the full review at Novel Readings

What Makes Life Worth Living? The University of Michigan Fall 2010 LS&A Theme Semester explores some of the many ways we find meaning and value in our lives. And as part of this exploration, they chose Grand River and Joy as the summer reading book for incoming freshmen.

Messer’s novel tells how real places and real events, recognized with shocking minuteness, are what release men and women into their real lives.

  D. G. Myers,
Read the full review at A Commonplace Blog

With unsparing candor, Susan Messer thrusts us into a time when racial tensions sundered friends and neighbors and turned families upside down. The confrontations in Grand River and Joy are complex, challenging, bitterly funny, and—painful though it is to acknowledge it—spot-on accurate.

  Rosellen Brown
Author of Before and After and Half a Heart

Grand River and Joy is a rare novel of insight and inspiration. It's impossible not to like a book this well-written and meaningful—not to mention as historically significant, humorous, and meditative."

  Laura Kasischke
Author of The Life Before Her Eyes and Be Mine

Riding shotgun as shop owner Harry Levine attempts to navigate the racial turmoil of Detroit, we peer out the passenger side and straight into the boiling pot that ultimately spills over…

  Megan Shaffer
Night Light Revue

It’s a beautiful story, a moving story, and a story that will bring tears and quiet joy as you relive those turbulent days of the 1960’s at Grand River and Joy in Detroit.

  Russ Gibb (1931–2019)
Former owner of the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, located near Grand River and Joy Road.

Messer captures the small moments, in relationships and in daily life, that build to create a distinctive atmosphere. Here, the mood is one of anxiety and anticipation, underscored by the need to persist. Her characters are compelling and familiar.

  Jewish Week

The sense of loss in Messer's book is palpable. Messer describes the Dutch colonials, the red-stone Georgians and towering elm trees lining the streets of her Detroit in loving detail.

  Detroit News

Messer dramatizes the nuances of racism from Jewish and African-American perspectives. Particularly poignant, and hilarious, is the chapter in which Levine and his black tenant, Curtis, spend a night in the basement next to a broken boiler that could explode at any minute.

  Detroit Free Press

Messer’s strength as a writer is to tackle the complications without reducing them to sound bites. Instead, she uses believable characters to approach impossible subjects such as power, prejudice, and—yes—migration.


Susan Messer empathetically describes the struggle against the coming catastrophe… This fine book is a reminder of confusing, painful times and their consequences.


Messer does a great job using the character of Harry to show the middle and confused ground that many white people stand on as they view race relations…an interesting, deep look at something many people have lived through, possibly without even realizing it.

  Andrew Kim in It’s On
Download the full review

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About the book

Halloween morning 1966, Harry Levine arrives at his wholesale shoe warehouse to find an ethnic slur soaped on the front window. As he scavenges around the sprawling warehouse basement, looking for the supplies he needs to clean the window, he makes more unsettling discoveries: a stash of Black Power literature; marijuana; a new phone line running off his own;and a makeshift living room, arranged by Alvin,the teenaged tenant who lives with his father, Curtis,above the warehouse .Accustomed to sloughing off fears about Detroit's troubled inner-city neighborhood,Harry dismisses the soaped window as a Halloween prank and gradually dismantles “Alvin's lounge”in a silent conversation with the teenaged tenant. Still, these events and discoveries draw him more deeply into the frustrations and fissures permeating his city in the months leading up to the Detroit riots.

Grand River and Joy, named after a landmark intersection in Detroit, follows Harry through the intersections of his life and the history of his city. It's a work of fiction set in a world that is anything but fictional, a novel about the intersections between races, classes and religions during the long, hot summers of Detroit in the 1960s. Grand River and Joy is a powerful and moving exploration of one of the most difficult chapters of Michigan history.


Because of the chores, the routine, on the way up the hall to the two front rooms, Harry didn’t see, or notice, the front window until the Halloween-morning sun glinted off it full on. And because he’d never seen anything like this before on his own front window, but because he had seen pictures, and because a deep ancestral memory of facing something like this was stored in a brain region that science had not yet identified, he now had a conjunction of shock and recognition, a sense that he’d always expected it, but that it didn’t hurt any less for the expecting.

And because Ilo always came up behind him, as if to say, let him be the first to face whatever happened during the night, let him be the scout, and because she had stopped in the ancient bathroom, where the door didn’t close all the way because of the warping and the layer upon ageless layer of paint, to check her lipstick—lipstick of all things, in a place like this. And because she was about to see the same front window he’d seen, he moved quickly in front of it and fooled with the old-fashioned shoes, thinking he might cover what he’d seen or simply distract her so she wouldn’t see, or simply to distract himself so that he himself wouldn’t see, wouldn’t fully see. Of course, the letters were backwards, when viewed from the inside, but it was surprising how many of them worked either way.

Readings and book signings

"Detroit 67: Through the Lens of Fiction"
July 20, 2017, 6:00 to 8:00

As one of a wide range of events being held to commemorate and reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riot/rebellion, Susan will appear at the Detroit Historical Museum.

For information about private events or book group visits, please contact me at

Play video of Susan Messer reading from Grand River & Joy

Buy Grand River and Joy
, now in paperback!

• From The University of Michigan Press
• From The Book Table, my favorite independently owned bookstore
• From Amazon


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