Erin Bartels is an award-winning author of short stories and poems; “We Hope For Better Things” is her debut novel. It is a wonderful story and I hope it does well for her.
“We Hope For Better Things” is one of those books that defies labeling. Is it historical fiction? Yes, but more. Is it a mystery? Yes, but more. Is it a romance? Yes, but more. Is it a social commentary? Yes and YES.
It’s an interesting story of three women in three different times. They are all distant relatives and the house in which they all have lived, each in her time, is pivotal to the plot.
Their lives are connected through the house and the fact that each has loved outside her race.
The story begins in present-day Detroit, where young journalist Elizabeth is approached by a man who seems to know more about her family than Elizabeth does. He asks her to return a camera and some 50-year-old photos to her great-aunt, a woman Elizabeth has never met.
Intrigued and freed by circumstance after she loses her job, Elizabeth travels to the countryside outside Detroit to meet her Aunt Nora. Nora lives alone in a rambling 175-year-old farmhouse that has been in the family for generations. In the house she finds locked trunks, mysterious rooms and an aunt in the early stages of dementia.
Through flashbacks to Detroit of the 1960s, we learn Nora’s story. When she and William fell in love and were married in the early 1960s it was a tough go for an interracial couple. Beyond William’s family, Nora was not accepted in the African-American community, and William and Nora were not welcome in Nora’s family.
Nora’s mother is somewhat more tolerant and helps them get set up in a ramshackle farmhouse owned and forgotten by her family for several generations. All goes well for the young couple until the riots and turmoil of the mid-1960s. William returns to Detroit to help his family escape the rioting and never returns to Nora. Will the puzzling photos and camera help solve this mystery?
After moving in with Nora, Elizabeth gets to know the old farmhouse and the grounds surrounding it. It’s in her trips to the garden supply store that she meets Tyrese, who becomes her love interest.
As she finds solace in rehabilitating the kitchen garden gone wild, she finds unmarked graves that lead Nora to relate more family history. These memories send the reader to the same house during and immediately after the Civil War.
Mary Balsam is a newlywed when her husband leaves to enlist in the Union army. Her home becomes a stop on the Underground Railroad. Most of the runaways rest a day or two and then make their final push to Canada. However, many stay for weeks or months to help Elizabeth with the farm. George is one of those who stays for years to help Mary and becomes her foreman and companion in running the farm. Together they build their own isolated community and eventually a sanctuary for former slaves after the war.
One thing that is especially captivating about this book was how the author takes all the loose ends from all the characters and plot points and weaves them successfully into a satisfying ending. Through the stories of Mary and George, Nora and William, Elizabeth and Tyrese, we get a glimpse of the cultural changes in interracial romantic relationships.
Are we now at a place where everything is perfect? Of course not. That’s why we continue to hope for better things.
• “We Hope For Better Things” by Erin Bartels was published by Fleming H. Revell Co. in January. It retails for $17.99.
• Luanne Clark works for Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in this space every week.