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Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
East of Troost: A Novel by Ellen Barker is a gentle yet strangely poignant journey through the structure of American society and the racism that seems deeply ingrained in institutions that regulate the cities we live in. When a successful, middle-class, middle-aged white woman’s life begins to fall apart, she looks back to her childhood in Kansas City, Missouri, and wonders if she can reconnect with the past. As a child, during the 60s, she lived east of Troost before her parents, along with most of the families in the region at the time, joined the “white flight” to the more up-market and safer areas of Kansas City, west of Troost. After having spent most of their life savings on medical care for her ill husband, and the freak burning down of their house, following her husband’s death, she is grieving, confused, and lost, as well as realizing she can no longer afford to buy a new house in California even with the insurance money. As a telecommuter, she is aware she can live and work anywhere she has an internet connection, so once she decided to purchase the house she grew up in, in Kansas City, she headed across the country to re-establish her life. East of Troost has changed dramatically in the intervening years, with an expressway cutting through the area, high crime, and many houses neglected and in the hands of uncaring renters. As a white, middle-aged woman, with just her German shepherd, Boris, for company, can she fit in and what will her predominately African-American neighbors think of her moving back here after all these years?
East of Troost is a gentle but powerful reminder of the fractured and often unfairly structured nature of American society. In her debut novel, Ellen Barker used her childhood reminiscences to create a fascinating scenario that many of us would never have considered. The idea of returning to the house where you grew up, to a neighborhood that has changed so drastically in the intervening years, was pure genius. As a child of the 60s and one imbued with the social justice of Catholic nuns, she was able to envisage and empathize with those living in a deprived neighborhood, and yet one could feel the palpable fear she encountered in certain circumstances on her journey, especially when her house was broken into not long after she arrived. Her willingness to smile at neighbors, to talk to them, and the friendliness of her beloved dog, Boris, did allow her to connect with people at least on a surface level and this was a powerful reminder that we human beings are all ultimately the same with similar desires, aspirations, and dreams -- yet some are stymied in these quests merely by an accident of birth that determined their skin color and their residence of birth. For me, the most powerful statement of structural racism came with the incident late in the book at the mobile phone store. The entire scenario just left me shaking my head in sadness and glad that I don’t live in an American city. This is a kindly, well-structured read and although it’s a bit of a slow-burner, there is much to be gleaned from this author’s story. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and can highly recommend it.