Kelsey Ronan’s Chevy in the Hole reimagines the city some of us never knew
By Sarah Carson
When I was sixteen, my mother’s friend gifted her a 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix. The spider web of cracks on the windshield was not only an eyesore but a safety hazard. The brakes were worn to the rotors, and we didn’t have the money to fix them. Instead, we began slowing for each turn from several blocks away. Even so, every Saturday morning I took the thing on the twenty-six-mile journey from where my family was living then in Shiawassee County, Michigan to the city of Flint—where I was born, where my parents were born, and where their parents were born, a city that by then was crumbing around its concrete seams and termite-eaten joists.
Even as a teenager, I was hypnotized by the power of the past to become something entirely different. I drove around taking pictures of vacant lots and toppled street signs. I wrote terrible poetry about what it might be like for this place to become something new. So when I heard that another Flint Millennial had written her debut novel about our shared city of origin, I had to read it, and I was not going to wait until it was officially on a bookstore shelf.
I sent Kelsey Ronan a Facebook message asking if she wanted to talk about the real-life places that inspired her new book Chevy in the Hole—which takes its name from the Chevrolet factory where the Great Sit Down Strike of 1923 resulted in the formation the United Auto Workers union—and in the formation of a prosperous, middle class city surrounding the factory town. She agreed.
The novel follows August and Monae, a young couple who meet at an urban farm on land that once was home to the famous factory. August has just survived an overdose that left him dead for several moments on the bathroom floor of the farm-to-table restaurant where he was working. Monae splits her time between the farm and a part-time job at a museum dedicated to Flint history—all while finishing a bachelor’s degree. As their stories intertwine, we see them imagine a future—for themselves and for a city that has endured so much—but we also get glimpses into the people and events that shaped the place where they’ve found each other.
When Ronan and I met over Zoom to chat, she explained the book began as a series of short stories rooted in her own family’s experiences in Flint: “There had been two stories at the end of the short story collection that were about August and Monae, and they were stories that felt more personal to me.” The character of August was based on Ronan’s real-life, long-time partner, Bryan, who died of a drug overdose. The book became a place to express her grief—and her joy—as she remembered her time with Bryan. And in the character of August, Ronan was able to craft an alternate reality—one in which the overdose was not the end of the story, but a beginning, a way to start again.
Ronan’s real-life experience with Chevy in the Hole dates back to her childhood, when she once biked there on a “rare summer day” with her mostly-absent father. She remembers cycling “past the barbed wire and the broken glass.” This experience informed a similar scene in her book, where August also bikes along Chevrolet Avenue with his father (though August’s ride ends much more disastrously than Ronan’s did). As a young adult taking classes at the University of Michigan-Flint, Ronan also biked through the urban meadow that has taken the factory’s place. In the novel, this meadow is not only home to the farm where the protagonists meet, but a place where August does his own fair share of wandering.
Or there’s the golf course near what people in Flint called the “Miller Road Mansions.” These larger-than-life homes were once home to General Motors executives and other Very Important People. Now many are in disrepair—although at least one of them was purchased by an exotic dancer in 2009. Ronan walked this same neighborhood with her mother, where deer can be found roaming the greens. In the novel, August walks this path with his mom, too, bringing carrots along in case they encounter a forest animal where rich men once counted their strokes.
But when I asked her to list the places that shaped this book, perhaps my favorites were “all the Flint places I’ll never get to go to: AutoWorld, Billy Durant’s bowling alley, the Holiday Inn where Keith Moon got in trouble.” These are the places a kid growing up in Flint in the ‘90s only heard about secondhand, places that my father—right now, as I write is—is sitting at my kitchen table going on and on about, having discovered Ronan’s book buried in my pile of calendars and sticky notes. “How did she write a book about the ‘40s when she’s thirty-six years old?”
Well, Dad, first, the book is not about the ‘40s. Yes, it does visit the ‘40s, but also the ‘20s, the ‘50s and the ‘60s. But most of the book takes place in 2014. Ronan did her research, though. She culled through old newspapers and library archives. But she took some liberties, too. (The book is fiction, after all.) She’s not recounting history as much as reimagining the past as it was told to her by her grandfather: “My grandfather was my father figure,” she said. “We were super close. The thing he loved to do was take me on pointless errands and tell me where stuff used to be.”
And if there’s one thing Flint fathers and grandfathers have in common it’s that they are entirely unable to keep their memories to themselves. “Kids your age never even saw the good Flint,” my dad continues. “The Flint where you could drive around, have fun, shop, buy a coney dog and catch a movie.”
It’s true. We didn’t. Still, Ronan brings them back to life. For instance, she re-tells the true story of the night The Who played a show in Flint on Keith Moon’s twenty-first birthday. Moon got so drunk he drove a Cadillac into the swimming pool and was banned from all other Holiday Inns for life. Chevy in the Hole puts August’s grandmother there: “She sat on the stairs and watched the squad cars depart, then watched the tow truck slide the Cadillac out of the pool, water streaming from the grille, headlights cracked, fender hanging.”
This was the reason I wanted to talk to Ronan about her book. As one Flint writer to another, I wanted to hear her take on writing about a city that is rich with personal, tightly-clung-to memories—stories passed down from parents and grandparents, many of whom still can’t believe the city they knew is so different today. “It’s so weird,” she says. “I worked on this for so long…To have the book published is amazing. I’m trying to be really present for it.” When she says she “worked on this for so long,” what she means is she wrote this book while she not only grieved the death of her long-time partner, but saw both her mother and sister through serious, terrifying, life-threatening illnesses.
Then COVID happened. In the midst of the pandemic, her father died. But I promised I wouldn’t make these events the focus of our interview because what she has been through—what any of have been through—may be vital to who we become but certainly are not the only reasons to celebrate the beautiful things we make. Which brings us back to August and Monae, two tenderly-written characters who make life-altering mistakes but still end up floating in the waves off of Bluebell Beach, contented and in love.
What makes me most grateful, perhaps, to have gotten to know August and Monae and to have had the opportunity to read Chevy in the Hole is this: For several weeks this winter after the book showed up in my mailbox, I’d crawl into bed each night next to my four-year-old daughter. After we read The Pout Pout Fish and Do Cows Meow and Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, she would say to me, “Momma, read to me from your book.”
I reached to the bedside table and picked up the 288 pages a woman from my same hometown wrote about love and family and perseverance and redemption:
[Monae] considered the time and remembered his arm on the back of her chair, I read, and she knew how this might be perceived. But she felt like telling someone how in certain moods it satisfied her, the last image of the wrecking ball crashing into the factory; that part of Flint dissolving into rubble, cleaned away, made new. She thought about this sometimes, at the farm, when she was driving alone: time rolling backward across the landscape until the smokestacks and steamrolled factory lots and torched foundations of unwanted houses were peeled back to the soil beneath. When the city might start over green and healthy and just.
‘Did you watch the rest of Roger & Me?’ She typed, and hit send.
She heard her mother’s walker clicking on the kitchen tile, approaching the screen door. Frankie roused and trotted up the back steps.
Her phone buzzed beside her.
‘no! does gm come back???’
My daughter fell asleep listening to the rich, beautifully-crafted story of people who lived lives rooted in the place and history that made us, written by someone who cared deeply about the details. Isn’t that the same reason our grandparents and parents have insisted on telling us their versions of history? Chevy in the Hole has imagined a world in which deeply-flawed, deeply-human people get to figure out a happy ending. And that’s what storytelling is meant for, right? To make us feel. To make us see the world anew. ■
Sarah Carson’s writing has appeared in the Missouri Review, Guernica, New Ohio Review, and The Nashville Review, among others, and her poetry collection How to Baptize a Child in Flint, Michigan is forthcoming from Persea Books later this year. You can read more of her work at stuffsarahwrote.com.
Cover image via Wikimedia (creative commons).
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