New novel "Chevy in the Hole" tells a multilayered Flint love story
Detroit writer Kelsey Ronan’s debut novel, Chevy in the Hole, poses rich questions about how we carry the collective histories of the places and people we come from.
On the surface, the novel is an interracial love story based in Flint. It’s also a love story for Flint, where Ronan grew up.
The novel opens on Gus, a 26-year-old white man recovering from an on-the-job opioid overdose at the farm-to-table restaurant where he works as a line cook. The story centers on the relationship he develops, post-Narcan-resurrection, with Monae, a Black woman and an ambitious, hopeful urban farmer. But Ronan situates their love story within three generations of their families’ stories, against an expansive backdrop of Flint history from the 1936 GM Sit-Down Strike to the peak of the water crisis.
“I think a lot of Flint millennials relate to this, but I feel like I've sort of always had no choice but to think about Flint history,” said Ronan, who grew up watching the physical effects of rapid population loss. Her grandfather would also take her on “errands” around town, pointing out places that used to be community and personal landmarks.
“I felt like I was always growing up in multiple Flints, you know, there was the one I knew, and then there was the one that was, you know, steeped in all these stories and in all these other experiences that I wasn't there for.”
As she grew older, Ronan kept noticing that the stories others told about Flint didn’t quite capture the city she knew.
Repeated placement on “Worst Places” and “Most Miserable Cities” lists in Forbes Magazine. Michael Moore’s controversial account of the city’s demise in Roger and Me. Ruin porn. East Coast media ruminations of all kinds on the Rust Belt.
They weren’t wrong, necessarily. But they seemed distorted.
“You know, we're sort of used to there being this outsider narrative of Flint that feels both true and yet not full,” she said.
When the Flint water crisis began to capture national attention, Ronan was living in St. Louis. Watching it unfold from afar threw the insider-outsider discrepancy into focus. Ronan noticed a disconnection between what she heard from family and friends back home and what she read in national outlets.
Ronan also started to notice large gaps in the stories of Flint that she had grown up with.
She said that reading and listening to journalists and advocates like Andrew Highsmith, Anna Clark, and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha revealed a lot that didn’t make it into her classes at school or her white working class family’s personal stories.
“This history of environmental racism and systemic racism,” she said, “really forced me to reckon with those rosier stories” of Flint’s industrial heyday.
As she developed Chevy in the Hole, she spent a lot of time digging into the archives of the Flint Public Library, learning about things like the role of the Flint Women’s Auxiliary in the Sit-Down Strike, the devastating 1953 Flint-Beecher tornado, and the history of civil rights activism in Flint
The novel also weaves in poignant, textured moments of recent history that still sting, like the revelation of an EPA official’s leaked email saying “I’m not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for” as the city’s water poisoned its residents, especially children.
Ronan said she wanted to go out on a limb for her hometown with her book.
“I started to feel, perhaps particularly in the wake of the water crisis, that it could be a kind of political act” to write a Flint story that acknowledged the city’s hopefulness as well as its struggles “and to have a very unlikely hero, I guess, at the center of it.”
Christin Lee works alongside Ronan at Room Project, a Detroit space for women and nonbinary writers where much of Chevy in the Hole got written. She said she admired Ronan’s commitment to writing the novel “exactly as she wanted the story told” against external pressure and dismissal.
Despite initially facing rejections from publishers who told Ronan “there wasn't a market for a book on the history of this ‘small’ town,” Chevy in the Hole has so far received warm reviews from The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and more.