"Three generations of social injustice..."
Reviewed by Patricia (Pat) Pascale
Posted March 28, 2019
Women's Fiction Time Slip | Inspirational
In 1861 in Lapeer County, Mary Balsam is left alone when her husband
Nathaniel enlists in the Army. She is pregnant and the task of keeping
the ranch will be difficult especially since Grouse, the accounts
manager has enlisted too and will not be returning to help Mary. That
evening a strange man appears at her door asking for help. Mary has a
good heart and Christian spirit invites him in, feeds him, gives him
clean clothes, and a place to sleep. Confident Nathaniel would approve,
Mary fires the cook when she refuses to serve the starving visitor.
Several weeks pass and a letter from Nathaniel arrives with his large
trunk. When she opens the trunk, a black man named George is curled
up inside. George says he was sent to help her. George is there when
Mary goes into early labor and stays with her when the baby is stillborn.
They work side by side and become friends and in time, much more.
Loyal, kind, and protective, George was a really wonderful man and my
In a separate storyline, Nora is an elite society darling living in the
Bloomfield Hills section of Detroit in the 1960s. She meets William, a
handsome, black photographer at an art gallery and they fall in love
and get married. When they share their news with their parents, they
are both shocked when they express their disapproval and do not offer
any assistance. Unable to find an apartment to live in together because
of their interracial relationship, help is secretly given by Nora's mother.
Nora and William are forced to move to the country in a home owned by
Nora's parents, the same home Mary Balsam and George lived in.
Hopefully, away from the city, Nora and William will find peace and not
be plagued by ignorant outsiders who insult and threaten them...
In the present day, Elizabeth is working on an assignment as a reporter
when it goes wrong and she is fired. She is approached by James Rich
and tasked with delivering an old camera and photos not seen before of
the 1967 Detroit Riot. Is there a story there for Elizabeth? She decides
to travel to her great-Aunt Nora's home in Lapeer County. She does not
know her but is welcomed by Aunt Nora, who tells her stories about
their family, including many secrets. Elizabeth meets an intriguing man
named Tyrese, and I wonder if there is a future for them, (hopefully)
Erin Bartels does a fine job of weaving the stories of the three women
decades apart, yet who faced similar social injustices and cultural
expectations in WE HOPE FOR BETTER
THINGS. It is well researched and I found it interesting that the title
of this book borrows the City of Detroit's motto: We hope for better
things. It will rise from the ashes. This book is a journey through time
filled with emotions: pain, loss, hope, and love. I loved it and you will
too. Bravo Ms. Bartels. Looking forward to your next one!
When Detroit Free Press reporter Elizabeth Balsam
meets James Rich, his strange request--that she look up a
relative she didn't know she had in order to deliver an old
camera and a box of photos--seems like it isn't worth her
time. But when she loses her job after a botched
investigation, she suddenly finds herself with nothing but
At her great-aunt's 150-year-old farmhouse, Elizabeth
uncovers a series of mysterious items, locked doors, and
hidden graves. As she searches for answers to the riddles
around her, the remarkable stories of two women who lived
this very house emerge as testaments to love, resilience,
and courage in the face of war, racism, and
misunderstanding. And as Elizabeth soon discovers, the past
is never as past as we might like to think.
Debut novelist Erin Bartels takes readers on an emotional
journey through time--from the volatile streets of 1960s
Detroit to the Underground Railroad during the Civil War--
uncover the past, confront the seeds of hatred, and
where love goes to hide.
The Lafayette Coney Island was not a comfortable place to
be early. It wasnâ€™t a comfortable place, period. It was
cramped and dingy and packed, and seat saving, such as I
was attempting at the lunch rush, was not appreciated.
Thankfully, at precisely noon as promised, an older black
gentleman in a baggy Detroit Lions jersey shuffled through
the door, ratty leather bag slung over one drooped
â€śMr. Rich?â€ť I called over the din.
He slid into the chair across from me. Iâ€™d fought hard for
that chair. Hopefully this meeting would be worth the
â€śHowâ€™d you know it was me?â€ť he said.
â€śYou said youâ€™d be wearing a Lions jersey.â€ť
â€śOh yes. I did, didnâ€™t I? My son gave me this.â€ť
â€śYou ready to order? I only have twenty minutes.â€ť
Mr. Rich was looking back toward the door. â€śWell, I was
hoping that . . . Oh! Here we go.â€ť
The door swung open and a tall, well-built man sporting a
slick suit and a head of short black dreads walked in. He
looked vaguely familiar.
â€śDenny! Weâ€™re just about to order.â€ť Mr. Rich set the
leather bag on his lap and slid over in his seat to
accommodate the newcomer.
The man sat on the eight inches of chair Mr. Rich had
managed to unearth from his own backside, but most of him
spilled out into the already narrow aisle.
â€śThis is my son, Linden.â€ť
Something clicked and my eyes flew to one of the many
photos on the wall of famous people whoâ€™d eaten here over
the years. There he was, between Eminem and Drew Barrymore,
towering over the smiling staff.
I sat a little straighter. â€śThe Linden Rich who kicks for
â€śYeah,â€ť he said. â€śAnd you are . . . ?â€ť
â€śThis is Elizabeth Balsam,â€ť Mr. Rich supplied, â€śthe lady
who writes all those scandal stories in the Free Press
about corruption and land grabbing and those ten thousandâ€”
eleven thousand?â€”untested rape kits they found awhile back
and such. She covered the Kilpatrick trial.â€ť
I offered up a little smile, one Iâ€™d practiced in the
mirror every morning since college, one I hoped made me
look equal parts approachable and intelligent.
â€śOh, yeah, okay,â€ť Linden said. â€śI see the resemblance. In
â€śI told you,â€ť Mr. Rich said.
â€śIâ€™m sorry,â€ť I broke in, â€śwhat resemblance?â€ť
A waiter in a filthy white T-shirt balancing ten plates on
one arm came up to the table just then and said, â€śDenny!
We ordered our coney dogsâ€”coney sauce and onions for me,
everything they had in the kitchen for Linden, and just
coney sauce for Mr. Rich, who explained, â€śI canâ€™t eat
onions no more.â€ť
â€śAnd I need silverware,â€ť I added in an undertone.
When the waiter shouted the order to the old man at the
grill, Linden was already talking. â€śYou are not giving her
â€śYou said the photosâ€”the photos should stay for now,â€ť Mr.
Rich said. â€śWhy shouldnâ€™t I give her the camera? It ainâ€™t
â€śIt ainâ€™t hers either.â€ť
â€śNo, sheâ€™s going to give it to Nora.â€ť
Linden took a deep breath and looked off to the side.
Though probably anyone else would have been embarrassed to
be so obviously talked about as if she wasnâ€™t even there,
years of cutthroat journalism had largely squelched that
entirely natural impulse in my brain.
I jumped on the dead air to start my own line of
questioning. â€śOn the phone you said youâ€™d been given a few
things that were found in a police evidence lockerâ€”that
belonged to a relative of yours?â€ť
â€śNo, they belong to a relative of yours. Maybe I should
just start from the beginning.â€ť
I resisted the urge to pull out my phone and start
recording the conversation.
But before Mr. Rich could begin, our coney dogs were
plunked down on the table in no particular order. We slid
the plates around to their proper owners. The men across
from me bit into their dogs. I began to cut mine with a
knife and fork, eliciting a you-gotta-be-kidding-me look
â€śIâ€™ve been reading the Free Press over the years,â€ť Mr. Rich
began, â€śand I kept seeing your byline. I donâ€™t know if I
would have noticed that all those articles were by the same
person if I didnâ€™t have a connection to your family name.â€ť
I nodded to let him know I was tracking with him.
â€śAnd I got to thinking, maybe this Elizabeth Balsam is
related to the Balsam I know. Itâ€™s not a real common name
in Detroit. I donâ€™t know if Iâ€™d ever heard it outside of my
own association with a Nora Balsam. Now, is that name
familiar to you?â€ť
I speared a bit of bun and sopped up some sauce. â€śSorry,
no. I donâ€™t think I know anyone by that name.â€ť
Linden lifted his hand up to his father as if to say,
â€śNow, hold on,â€ť the older man said in his sonâ€™s direction.
â€śYou said yourself she looks like her.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll admit you do look like her,â€ť Linden said. â€śButâ€”no
offense and allâ€”you do kind of all look the same.â€ť
I laughed. As a white person in a city that was over eighty
percent black, I was used to occasional reminders of what
minority races had to contend with in most parts of the
country. I didnâ€™t mind it. It helped me remember that the
readership I served wasnâ€™t only made up of people just like
â€śI wouldnâ€™t say youâ€™re the spitting image,â€ť Mr. Rich said,
â€śbut thereâ€™s a definite resemblance in the eyes. If you had
blonde hair, maybe a different chin, itâ€™d be spot-on.â€ť
I took a sip of water. â€śI still donâ€™t know who youâ€™re
talking about. Or what this meeting is all about.â€ť
Mr. Rich shut his eyes and shook his head. â€śYeah, weâ€™re
getting ahead of ourselves again. Now, you know well as
anyone lots of things have gone by the wayside in this
city. We got too many problems to deal with them all. Well,
I been looking for something thatâ€™s been lost for a very
long time. I knew the police had to have it, but you try
getting someone on the phone who knows what theyâ€™re talking
about in an organization that had five police chiefs in
five years. And I get it. They got way more important
things to do than find some old bag collecting dust on a
shelf.â€ť He paused and smiled broadly. â€śBut I finally found
it. Got the call a couple years ago and got it backâ€”and a
bit more I hadnâ€™t bargained for.â€ť He tapped the bag on his
lap, still miraculously free of coney sauce. â€śThis camera
belongs to Nora Balsam. And I have a box full of
photographs for her as well.â€ť
I realized Iâ€™d been squinting, trying to put the pieces
together in my head as to what any of this really had to do
with me. I relaxed my face and tried to look sympathetic.
â€śAnd you think Iâ€™m related and I therefore can get them to
â€śThatâ€™s what I hoped.â€ť
I wiped my already clean hands on my napkin. â€śIâ€™m sorry,
Mr. Rich, but I think youâ€™ll have to look elsewhere. Iâ€™ve
never heard of her.â€ť
The old man looked disappointed, but I was relieved. I had
bigger fish to fry and a deadline that was breathing down
my neck. I didnâ€™t have time to courier old photos to
someone. I glanced at my phone. I didnâ€™t even have time to
â€śIâ€™m so sorry not to have better news for you. But
unfortunately, I have to get going.â€ť I started to pull some
bills from my wallet.
Linden held up his hand. â€śItâ€™s on me.â€ť
â€śThanks.â€ť I drained my water glass, pulled my purse strap
onto my shoulder, and pushed back my chair a couple inches,
which was as far as it would go in the tight space. â€śJust
out of curiosity, why was this stuff at a police station?
What are these pictures of?â€ť
Linden looked at his father, who looked down at his plate
as if the answer were written there in the smear of coney
â€śTheyâ€™re from the â€™67 riots.â€ť
I felt my heart rate tick up, scooted back up to the table,
and leaned in. â€śDid you bring them?â€ť
â€śDenny didnâ€™t think I should.â€ť
â€śBecause of that,â€ť Linden said. â€śBecause you werenâ€™t
interested until you knew what they were, and I knew it
would play out this way.â€ť He turned to his father. â€śDidnâ€™t
I tell you? Didnâ€™t I say sheâ€™d only be interested in
getting her hands on the photos?â€ť
I sat back, trying to play it cool, trying to put that
approachable-yet-intelligent smile back on my face. â€śWhy
shouldnâ€™t I be? Iâ€™ve built my entire reputation on exposing
corruption and neglect in this city. Photos of historic
significance left to rot in a police station are just one
more symptom of the larger problem. And Iâ€™m working on a
big piece right now on the riots. Those photos have never
been publishedâ€”I assume. Iâ€™m sure the Free Press would pay
handsomely to have the privilege of sharing them with the
Linden pointed a finger in my direction. â€śThere! There it
is! Just like I said.â€ť
Mr. Rich placed a hand on his sonâ€™s forearm. â€śOkay, okay.
Just calm down and let me talk a moment.â€ť
Linden withdrew the accusative finger and leaned back on
his half of the seat, his million-dollar foot stretching
out past my chair, blocking me in even as I knew he must
want me out.
His father looked at me with tired eyes. â€śMiss Balsam, Iâ€™m
burdened. I been carrying something around for fifty years
that I got to let go of. This camera and those photos have
to get back to Nora. Not to the paper, not to a museum or a
library. To Nora. Now, I canâ€™t take them. But you could.
Are you willing to just look into it? Do a little poking
around to see if youâ€™re related like we think you are? And
if you are, would you be willing to make contact with her?
Kind of ease her into the idea slowly? These photos will
stir up a lot of hard memories for an old lady. But I know
it in my heartâ€”the Lord laid it on my soulâ€”I need to get
these to her.â€ť
One of the most important lessons I learned in my first
couple years as a professional journalist was not to get
emotionally involved with a story. There was simply too
much heartbreaking stuff you had to write about. To let
yourself empathize with the boy who was being bullied or
the man who had lost his business or the woman whose
daughter had been abducted, when there was nothing you
could do to help the situation beyond making a voice heardâ€”
it was just too heavy a burden to bring home with you every
night. So I built up a wall around my heart and stayed
within it at all times when it came to work.
But there was something about this manâ€™s eyes, the crooked
lines on either side of his mouth suggesting he had found
as much to frown at in life as to smile about, that chipped
away at that wall.
I tapped my finger on the table. â€śWhy do you have them if
sheâ€™s the one who took them?â€ť
â€śShe didnâ€™t take them. My uncle did. But heâ€™s gone. They
belong to her now.â€ť
â€śSheâ€™s his wife.â€ť
An interracial couple in the 1960s? This was getting
interesting. Maybe I could work this into my larger series
of articles about the riots and the time surrounding them.
It had a great human angle, a larger cultural-historical
angle, a connection to a beloved NFL player. I could even
frame it as a personal family story if I truly was related.
The question was, would I have the time? I still hadnâ€™t
been able to crack the protective shield around Judge
Sharpe, the white whale of my investigative series, and
time was running out.
â€śOkay, letâ€™s say I am related to her. I still donâ€™t know
her and she doesnâ€™t know me, so why would she even listen
â€śMiss Balsam, do you believe in God?â€ť
The question caught me off guard. â€śYes.â€ť
â€śDo you believe he works all things together for his
My parents believed that. My sister did. I had once. Before
Iâ€™d seen just how chaotic and messed up and out of control
the world was. If journalism had taught me anything, it was
that we were all just out there flailing and stumbling
through a minefield of dangers and predators and dumb blind
chance. But it was obvious that Mr. Rich believed God had
given him a taskâ€”return these itemsâ€”and that he would get
no rest until the task was completed.
Instead of answering his question, I asked one of my own.
â€śWhy donâ€™t you just ship it to her?â€ť
â€śNo, that ainâ€™t the way.â€ť
I waited for a logical reason why not, but clearly none was
â€śWould you just look into it?â€ť he said.
Those beseeching brown eyes tugged a few more bricks out of
â€śSure. Iâ€™ll look into it,â€ť I said.
Mr. Rich nodded and slid a business card across the table.
I avoided Lindenâ€™s sharp gaze as I pocketed the card and
squeezed out of my chair.
â€śIt was so nice meeting you,â€ť I said. â€śThanks for lunch.â€ť
I walked out into the windy, sun-drenched afternoon, handed
a dollar to the homeless guy who paced and mumbled a few
yards from the door, and headed down the street to the old
Federal Reserve building, which had housed the shrinking
Free Press staff since 2014, and where a pile of work
I tried to concentrate on the unending march of emails
marked urgent in my inbox, including one from my editorâ€”My
office, ASAPâ€”but my mind was spinning out all the
directions this new story idea could go. This was decidedly
inconvenient because I needed to focus.
Iâ€™d been stalking Judge Sharpe through his affable and
unsuspecting son Vic for months, and I finally felt like a
break was imminent. Vic had texted me last night to set up
a meeting after he, in his words, â€śdiscovered something big
I think youâ€™ll be interested to know.â€ť I had to get these
photos off my mind for the moment, and the best way to do
that was to get the research ball rolling.
I slipped out to the stairwell and pulled up Ancestry.com
on my phone. A few minutes and thirty dollars later, I was
clicking on little green leaf icons that waved at me from
the screen. I found my parents and then began tracing my
fatherâ€™s branch back to the family tree. Grandfather
Richard, Great-Uncle Warner, and ping, just like that, a
great-aunt born Eleanor Balsam.
I typed a quick text to my sister in L.A.
Hey, long time, no see. Family question: have you ever
heard Mom or Dad talk about a great-aunt Eleanor or Nora?
Let me know. TX.
I waited a moment for a reply. She was probably with a
patient. It was also possible she had no idea who was
texting her because it had been at least two years since we
last talked. I walked back to my desk, pulled up my piece
on a black cop who worked the 1967 riots, and gave it one
last read before sending it on its way to my editor. It
would join my piece on a white firefighter Iâ€™d sent him two
days ago. The piece on Judge Sharpe, whoâ€™d been a National
Guardsman during the riots, would complete the triptych. If
I could get it written.
It was 1:14 p.m. If I left in five, Iâ€™d have time to
freshen up before meeting Vic for coffee at the Renaissance
My phone buzzed. My sister.
Sheâ€™s Dadâ€™s aunt. Why? Is she okay?
Leave it to Grace to immediately worry.
I want to visit her. Do you know where she lives?
I stared at the screen, waiting.
As far as I know, she still lives in the old Lapeer house.
She said it like I should know what it was, like The Old
Lapeer House was a thing. Even after all this time, it
still irked me that my unplanned birth nine years after my
sisterâ€™s meant that I so often felt like an outsider in my
own family, never quite in on the stories or inside jokes.
Mom may have it.
Great. My parents had been medical missionaries in the
Amazon River Basin for the past eight years. It wasnâ€™t as
if I could just call them up any time I wanted. Mom called
on my birthday and Christmas and any other time they
happened to be in a town for supplies, but that wasnâ€™t
My phone buzzed again.
Or call Barb. 269-555-7185
I didnâ€™t bother asking who Barb was, especially since it
was apparent I should already know. Iâ€™d cold-call her no
matter what. The prospect of getting my hands on those
never-before-seen photos of the riots was too tempting to
wait for proper introductions.
I looked at the clock again. If I was going to make it to
the RenCen Starbucks on time, I had to leave. Now. I
grabbed my purse and my bag from my desk and headed back to
My editor was the one person in the world who called me
â€śIâ€™m out the door, Jack. Iâ€™ll stop in when I get back.
Three oâ€™clock. Four, tops.â€ť
I pushed through the metal door, put the box of photos out
of mind, and got on with my real work: getting the
notoriously circumspect Judge Ryan Sharpe to open up about
his involvement in the 1967 riots. Because no matter what
image he liked to project to the public, my gut told me
that beneath the black robe lurked a man who had something
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