Thursday, February 16, 2017

Who's Jim Hines? Life in Jim Crow Detroit

I met author Jean Alicia Elster at a books and writers fundraiser at Leon & Lulu's in Clawson, MI. I bought her book The Colored Car, which I reviewed here, and the next year brought home Who's Jim Hines?

Elster's books are drawn from family stories about their life in 1935 when her grandfather ran a business delivering wood.

In Who's Jim Hines? we meet twelve-year-old Doug whose father runs the Douglas Ford Wood Company from their Halleck Street home in Detroit. Every day his father collects wood pallets from the auto factories, breaks them down, and loads them into his truck. He saws the wood into pieces sized for his customer's wood burning stoves, which is then delivered by his employees. Doug's mother runs the office, taking orders and managing the paperwork while caring for her family.

Their neighborhood, and the men who work for Doug's father, include African Americans, many from the South, and Polish immigrants. The families help each other, especially Doug's father who is grateful for their financial security during the Depression. He looks the other way when children steal a bit of wood to fashion playthings, and exchanges wood for services. The Ford family goes to nearby Hamtramack to shop, then a predominately Polish neighborhood and today a diverse multi-cultural magnet.

This is the story is of a boy's idolization of his father as a man and provider. Doug wants to be like his dad, but Douglas Sr has other plans: he intends that his son become a doctor.

The tension in the story is provided by Doug's gnawing need to know 'who's Jim Hines,' the faceless employee his dad says makes his business possible.

Doug must help his dad in his work to pay for lost school books, discovering exactly what it means to be black when he leaves the shelter of his narrow world.

In her Epilogue, Elster tells that after WWII and the decline in wood burning stoves her grandfather worked for Chrysler (as did my dad) and her father Doug Jr did graduate from medical school.

Written for ages eight through twelve, Who's Jim Hines? is a gentle story that brings a place and time in history to life, addressing an issue that resonates to this day.

Who's Jim Hines?
Jean Alicia Elster
Wayne State University Press
Publication 2008
ISBN: 9780814334027