We Hope for Better Things

Written by Erin Bartels
Review by K. M. Sandrick

We Hope for Better Things chronicles the histories of three Balsam women:

Elizabeth, a Detroit Free Press journalist who receives a strange request from a black father and son: return a camera and a box of photos to Nora (a relative she doesn’t even know she has) if Nora wants them;

Nora, the headstrong daughter of a well-to-do family from the Detroit suburbs who falls for a black man hoping to make a name for himself as a photographer in the 1960s;

And Mary, forced to manage the family farm in Lapeer County, Michigan, after her husband enlists in the Union Army, and her relationship with the former slave, George.

Chapter to chapter, the novel gives each woman’s perspective as it shifts from present day to the 1960s and 1860s. While individual scenes are well-developed and advance the narratives, many ended too soon, at least for me. I felt interrupted as I went from one woman and time period to another; the connection was broken each time and it took a while to re-establish.

Both the Civil War era and the Detroit of the late 1960s are scarred by deep racial divides, yet the book often takes a surface approach. Whites’ attitudes about blacks in Lapeer County are mentioned, but their effects are not shown. Likewise are the causes and terror of the race riots that left much of Detroit barren for decades. This is not to say that I do not appreciate the book. It tackles and addresses difficult subject matter forthrightly. And it creates memorable characters. I cared about each and couldn’t wait to find out what happened.

An ambitious effort that, unfortunately, misses opportunities to plumb race relations more deeply.