By Jan Worth-Nelson
Hard on the heels of his well-received nonfiction book Midnight in Vehicle City: General Motors, Flint, and the Strike that Created the Middle Class, Edward “Ted” McClelland has now released his first novel, Running for Home.
[McClelland, Edward. Running for Home. Huron, OH: Bottom Dog Press: 2021]
[McClelland, Edward. Midnight in Vehicle City: General Motors, Flint, and the Strike that Created the Middle Class. Boston: Beacon Press: 2021. Reviewed in EVM here: https://wp.me/p6Ue43-5iP ]
A page-turner and quick and gratifying read at 220 pages, Running for Home, like its protagonist, covers a lot of territory: it is a suspenseful account of competitive running; it is also a coming-of-age story, a family drama, and a vivid and wrenching depiction of the effects of the decline of the auto industry, based in a city much like Flint.
As such, Running for Home struck me as a complement and post script to the story of the Sit Down Strike, Flint’s enduring hero narrative. Just as McClelland describes how the Sit Down Strike fueled the origins of the middle class, this novel captures in anguishing detail the elements of its decline.
In an email exchange, McClelland, 54, a Lansing native now of Chicago, agrees, saying he sees the novel as “a fictional sequel to ‘Midnight,’ the fate of auto-making cities two generations after the Sit Down Strike.”
The inter-generational dimensions of the story – son, father, grandfather – vividly make manifest the contrasting perspectives and painful realities of a blue-collar white family in a factory town named Wenniway in the 1980s. McClelland says Wenniway is a composite of Lansing and Flint; local readers will recognize many accurate details from that era.
All this is delivered with mature and beautiful writing, an impressive gift in fiction from an author whose seven previous books are all nonfiction. This novel highlights McClelland’s range — apparently he can deliver in whatever genre he chooses with panache, curiosity, gusto, and grace.
It is the son, Kevin Ward, an 18-year-old high school kid and long-distance runner, who tells the story.
Along the way, readers will be treated to authentic side details like a euchre tournament at a typical shop bar, the superiority of home-cooked pot roast, the efforts of young Kevin to get kissed – and beyond – by his hippie girlfriend – and the account of his hilarious distaste for Elvis Costello, whom he tolerates only to appease that girl.
(McClelland went to high school in the 80s – in Lansing, where there was a Fisher Body plant across the street. He notes the decade marked “the end of the Running Boom and the beginning of the Rust Belt era – the two historical forces affecting Kevin.” McClelland says he too was a high school runner, though, unlike his protagonist, “I never won a race,”)
The dramas of the fictional 80s Ward family play out in the context of realistic pre-political correctness cultural polarities that hit as uncomfortable memories and precursors of some of today’s divisions. Kevin’s high school running coach is proud of his team’s diversity in a high school that we learn late in the book is half black, but it is clear the integration doesn’t extend to daily life — the black and white students congregate in the lunch room separately; the black runners are sprinters, while the white students run cross-country. Kevin’s family are proud that he ultimately outruns, “the Mexican kid”; and Kevin considers the word “fag” with some confusion but admires a runner who might be gay. Reflex resentment of Japanese imports runs deep, and discomfort about the Vietnam War ripples behind the scenes. Class differences, especially, recognizable even now to Flint observers, are represented by Kevin’s girlfriend Sara, whose mother is an English teacher and grown-up hippie in peasant clothes offering vegetarian food–Sara can’t wait to go to the “U” at a town like Ann Arbor, while to Kevin, that’s an uncomfortable and confounding world.
“I wanted to write about what differentiates the ‘working class’ from the ‘professional class’ – not talent and ability, but an orientation to family and community v. individual achievement,” McClelland says.
That differentiation is set up early in the novel’s “through line” – whether Kevin will become the running champion he dreams of – imagining making the Olympic team and maybe somehow from there, making a life,
Kevin is small – 5 ft. 7 – and not suited to any other high school sports. He’s also an introvert, a “running nerd,” spending hours reading running magazines and studying the techniques of famous racers like Bill Rodgers and Jim Ryun.
Meanwhile, readers meet Kevin Ward’s father, who’s in his 40s and five years from retirement from the shop and a secure pension with health benefits. Like so many blue collar men of his generation, he went straight into the shop after high school, paid cash for the family’s house, a cabin up north, and all his cars – all American-made in the hometown plant.
And there’s a grandfather, retired from the shop, a World War II era guy who’d been a proud “Wildcat Striker,” a reference to the Sit Down Strike. The curmudgeonly Gramps , a widower, lives alone in his paid-off house, reliving the glory days of union power, suspecting the auto bosses of treachery, grumbling at the TV from his Lazy Boy and watching Get Smart reruns.
Kevin knows he’ll never work in the shop—that option no longer exists. So he has to decide what else to do with his life. He’s not a star student, but he’s good at running and he loves to run.
Running, as a plot device, metaphor, and organizing philosophical and psychological principle, is powerful and effective. It allows McClelland to examine questions of the individual within himself, his responsibilities to the team, and to his family.
How McClelland describes his character’s running life is specific, accurate, and often beautifully executed. Here’s one example, capturing Kevin’s single-minded concentration, pain and transcendence:
“Winning this race was going to hurt like a bitch. It was going to feel like being stabbed in the chest over and over again and then being crushed to death by boulders. I told myself I could run one more mile at this pace. Get to mile two. That was as far ahead as I could think. And we reached the midpoint of the race – further than I had ever run so fast – I could try to detach my mind from the pain, from the feeling of my chest constricting and I desperately inhaled air to fuel my legs. I pushed the essence of myself into a little pouch, allowing it to float about my head, where it could simply observe a body moving independently of any mental pleadings. Kevin Ward was not going to win this race – a body wearing his face and my uniform was going to win. I just had to get out of its way, disassociate myself from the pain. Even if my brain decided to stop running here and now, my legs would not obey.”
Then disaster hits, a familiar 80s narrative: the auto plant shuts down, setting off a devastating chain reaction. Kevin’s father at first resolves to go to Tennessee as offered by the company and commuting home on weekends for his last five years.
But then Gramps has a stroke and needs help. The father changes his mind and takes the buyout. The family put their house up for sale, along with the cabin up north, and move in with Gramps, whose house is bigger, to accommodate them all.
Kevin ultimately is offered a partial running scholarship at the prestigious U – in a culturally foreign world based on Ann Arbor – but it’s not enough. The price of their house drops and drops, as Wenniway gradually empties; the shop bar shuts down; the Wade family rent their house; the tenants quickly run into trouble and face eviction.
In one of the most poignant events of the book, the Wards’ house, where Kevin grew up, ends up stripped by copper bandits, trashed of everything of value within it, and not worth even $1,000 to a furious next door neighbor who blames Kevin’s father for abandoning it to renters.
And still Kevin runs mile after mile after mile.
The title, with that significant Running for Home, is no accident. Kevin comes to understand his running is more than simply being the fastest, or breaking the four-minute mile, He faces a hard choice — to escape to the uncertain promises of a world away, or to stay.
Out of loyalty to his family, out of a need to keep things together, by the end of the novel, it appears he is choosing to stay. But his future is in doubt. And even as he runs for home, that literal home is in ruins and its supporting community nearing collapse.
If it were real life, McClelland’s protagonist, like McClelland, would be in his mid 50s now. If he stayed in town, maybe he’d have ended up as a fire fighter, wearing a mask and rushing to the latest arsons – Klock Korner or Jamin’s or the Pierce Park Clubhouse.
Maybe he’d have volunteered to join the military and go to Baghdad or Afghanistan. Or maybe he’d be working at the Crim Foundation, running events for school children and teaching them mindfulness. Or maybe, disillusioned by the collapse of his American Dream, he became a Trump supporter.
But the novel ends before all that. On the last page, McClelland’s young protagonist takes us for one last run:
“I ran past the high school. Across the street, nothing remained of Empire Body, except a few gnarled metal struts, twisting out of hillocks of bare dirt. Beyond the fence waved wildflowers that thrive in abandoned places: Queen Anne’s Lace, pepper grass, teasel. Looking beyond the empty site toward the railroad tracks that once carried the cars away, I decided to speed up until I reached the gates.”
McClelland’s sympathetic retracing of all that 80s upheaval and loss beyond those gates, set within the compassionate portrait of one young runner in one beleaguered working class family, offers sobering reminders of how hard things were – before they got even worse.
[McClelland, Edward. Running for Home. Huron, OH: Bottom Dog Press: 2021]
[McClelland, Edward. Midnight in Vehicle City: General Motors, Flint, and the Strike that Created the Middle Class. Boston: Beacon Press: 2021] Reviewed in EVM here: https://wp.me/p6Ue43-5iP ]
EVM Consulting Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, She is the author of the novel Night Blind.