American idyll

Neighbors in the sparse, impoverished area near Warren and West Grand Boulevard slow their vehicles and gape. Marvin Arnett, a great-great-grandmother crowned in salt-and-pepper braids, bundled in a purple coat, sits in a snow-covered vacant lot at Scotten and Herbert streets, staring at her typewriter. She’s perched in a chair loaned by a man who watches the mini-drama unfold from his stoop.

Arnett is sitting at about the spot where she lived in a bile-green, roach-infested tenement building from the time of the Great Depression to shortly after the race riots of 1943. On this particular weekday, she’s posing for a photo, delighted at the notion that she might impress her offspring — as if the granddaughter of freed slaves hasn’t done enough to impress.

Inquisitive passers by probe, “What’s going on here? Oh, she did? What’s the book called? What’s her name? When did she live here?”

“It’s remarkable,” says Arnett, who at first is a bit nervous. For although she grew up here and wrote a book about the good life in this neighborhood, it’s no longer just poor. It’s downright blighted.

“It’s definitely different. I can’t put my finger on how I feel right now. But the people, they are the same, just like I describe in my book. People look out for other people.”

At 74, Arnett is embarking on an exciting new chapter in her life. Her book, Pieces from Life’s Crazy Quilt, hits bookstores April 1. Its publication is a feat: Arnett started seriously writing at age 64; the book is her first stab at crafting literature.

Her writing style defies traditional categories — fiction and nonfiction — fitting instead into a genre dubbed creative nonfiction, launched years ago by the likes of Truman Capote. It’s history written in narrative style, in this case her childhood memoir.

Hers is the fifth in a popular series published by the University of Nebraska Press. Already it’s getting rave reviews.

“I was astounded. I think it’s an incredible book,” says Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a New York City psychiatrist and Columbia University faculty member who reviews books for publishing houses. She says the book helped her as she worked with children in shock after Sept. 11.

“I felt it was a great presence, truly, a gift to the world. I believe that it will become an American classic. I think Detroit ought to have a really great party. You should celebrate. I’ve been telling everyone, ‘Wait until you read this book.’”

Arnett has come far in a short time. Sitting in a creative nonfiction workshop in the summer of 2000, Arnett had received 98 rejection letters from publishers. She was hawking her book, which she had self-published. She sold some 1,000 copies, at $13.50 each, before the university press snapped it up. Self-publishing can be the kiss of death in the big-time book world, but Arnett persisted. And she won.

Poor, not woeful

Arnett’s mother was a stunning quilter who made what she called “crazy quilts,” works of art fashioned from random pieces of discarded clothing and material.

As she writes, Arnett herself quilts, weaving stories together to tell a compelling tale of time, place and people. Her vignettes animate a universal story of childhood, with all its fears, hopes, excitements, mistakes and insecurities — tales so very familiar, they span the boundaries of race and economics.

“From the retrospect of an adult, I realized my upbringing was not different from anyone else’s,” says Arnett. “The physical side was different, because we didn’t have the money. I had to become an adult to realize that everyone is more alike than unlike.”

As the book opens, Arnett tells us she was born in 1928, into a bleak social landscape of racism and segregation.

Ford Motor Co. closed its Detroit plant and Model T production the year before, sparking the Depression in the Motor City. Yet Southerners, both black and white, flooded into Detroit looking for higher pay and greater opportunity. Housing was sparse, shoddy and expensive.

At that time, blacks were segregated east of downtown in Black Bottom, and, on the west side, into self-sufficient “villages,” where white storeowners, albeit often friendly, sold goods at inflated prices.

Nevertheless, where “the primal call to ‘play ball’ was heard far into the evening,” at neighborhood parks and sweet watermelon was hawked on the corner, “It was no wonder that Negroes arriving from the South considered Detroit the Promised Land.”

“Within a twenty-mile radius was everything needed to live the good life, except the funds required,” she writes.

Her neighborhood, now primarily African-American, was at the time a mix of black, Indian, Hungarian, Jewish and Polish families; Poles once were the majority. The white families who lived nearby were “not to be confused with the Polish, Hungarian and Jewish families of our area who were white, but not White,” she writes.

The newly arrived blacks were primarily sons and daughters of freed slaves. Arnett’s mother’s mother remembered getting thrown into the air by an uncle who yelled, “Lincoln freed the slaves!” Her mother’s father was the product of a wealthy white tobacco farmer from Louisville, Ky., and a young slave woman. Despite protests from teachers and parents, the powerful landowner secured his son a janitorial job at the local school and insisted he be allowed to sit in the back of the class.

Arnett’s grandfather thereby became a rare literate African-American of his time and taught others to read and write.

Arnett’s father, William Sprague, was the 14th son of a Tennessee womanizer. He fled at a young age to see the world. Sprague was a chef in New Orleans and a chauffeur for a U.S. Rubber Company executive. He traveled abroad in this capacity, became lifelong friends with the executive and sang in an opera while overseas.

With all this experience, Sprague was considered a “wise man” in his community.

Arnett calls him “a race man” who loved his race, yet helped a Jewish store owner marry a black single mother. He taught his children that they were as good as anybody and better than most, and waged “epic battles,” as she deems them, with the school system.

When Arnett’s home economics class required black students to wash windows and floors, her father protested and won an agreement from the teacher and principal that all students would share the chore equally. After the white students went home with reddened hands and their parents complained, the principal announced that school policy forbade children from doing union work, therefore the practice would end for everyone.

Arnett’s father supported the family working as a chef in a downtown hotel, among other odd jobs.

Children did not go hungry in the Sprague house.

Despite the grim circumstances, Arnett offers an alluring and often humorous tale of youth spent with doting parents, kin, neighbors and young friends. She portrays an idyllic neighborhood, where adults look out for kids. Mom stays in the kitchen, canning fruits and vegetables, scrubbing the place spotless, and, in the case of Arnett’s mom, making beautiful clothing for her kids. Dad comes home after work, sits in his rocking chair and greets his wife, asking, “What’s for dinner, Gracie?” He religiously reads the newspaper. Arnett’s brother buries his nose in science fiction magazines.

She writes of the pride her parents shared in dressing their children to be the envy of the church each Easter Sunday. She repeats the familiar motherly mantras of her youth, including, “There but for the grace of God go I,” “Pretty is as pretty does,” “To thine own self be true,” and “Take from no bird her song.”

Arnett writes of her early love affair with books and the local library branch, where she spent her free time. Upon reading the entire children’s section at age 12, Arnett convinced the librarian to grant her a restricted adult card. With her pass to the adult world in hand, Arnett began a secretive quest for knowledge in the carnal realm. Once, she snuck a risqué book, The Captain Takes a Wife, past a new clerk. Later, upon returning home, she was greeted by an irate father, demanding, “How could you read this filth?”

Ashamed, Arnett pleaded ignorance and blamed the entire affair on the librarian. She never fessed up.

In another incident, she ignored the urging of her father to forgive her favorite teacher, a white woman who used the “n” word in a phrase to describe a literary passage. She lived to regret her stubborn behavior, as she realized with time that the woman was not a racist. She missed the woman, her academic confidante, terribly.

Arnett says her childhood was normal. Such families are “legion” among America’s poor, she says, you just don’t hear about them.

“If one of their sons goes crazy in the streets and kills someone, you will hear about it. But the others, you don’t hear about,” she says. “It wasn’t all doom and gloom.

“I’m sure it was rough as rats. But my parents didn’t expose us to that,” says Arnett. “I never thought about being poor. Why would I? I truly was, but nobody told me I was.

“I think this was true for a lot of children. Their parents didn’t want them to know. The dope and the pot and the killing, all of that went on, but we were protected from it.

“It’s a truth I haven’t read anywhere. This book is a truth. It isn’t the only truth. And it’s a truth that hasn’t been written about.

“Fiction? I don’t doubt it’s in there. If I did [fictionalize], it’s because over time the mind diminishes or embellishes. I can truthfully say that the book is true. I didn’t invent anyone.

“What I did was painful. I knew if I told it, I had to be honest.”

Arnett’s family left her west side neighborhood when she was 14. Her mother had saved enough to buy a house. Several years ago, Arnett moved to Southfield. She said she didn’t want to leave Detroit, “but it was a steal. I looked and I said, ‘Heck, I can spit across Eight Mile.’”

The tenement at Herbert and Scotten — the scene of the book — was razed in 1962. Scores of houses in the area have been demolished, leaving blocks barren. Hope is on the horizon; the three houses remaining on Arnett’s old block are renovated and in lovely condition, and developers plan to build more.

Still, it’s quite a contrast from Arnett’s childhood, when she spent her after-school hours at Lothrup Library on the boulevard. The place that fed the young writer’s intellect is now boarded up.

Birth of a book

With three children, four grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild -- and widowed at age 25 -- Arnett chuckles when asked why she started writing so late in life.

“I had small children to raise! I had to work!” says Arnett.

Though a top student, after graduating from Northwestern High, Arnett had no opportunity to go to college. Her brother did, and he went on to become a mathematician for IBM.

“The smart black male had opportunities for scholarships. But nobody was really pushing the black female. Female, black and smart — that’s an anathema.”

She got a job as a secretary with the federal government in 1960. Eventually, she rose to the rank of branch chief and became a vice president of Blacks in Government, a national association. She retired from her civilian post at the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command after 28 years.

In 1993, she enrolled in a writing program for senior citizens at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Her first professor told her she could get paid to write, her work was so good. On her next writing assignment, another professor suggested she should use her essay to write a book.

Arnett began writing “with a vengeance,” she says, and her childhood memoir simply wrote itself.

Arnett worked at getting an agent, perfecting her query letter.

She met rejection after rejection. Her professor and mentor Bill Linn pushed her to continue. But she doubted herself.

“I was angry. I was despondent. I felt this is good and you’re not going to make me believe anything else,” says Arnett. Yet she admits, “I felt, am I fooling myself? Does anyone want to read this junk?”

One day, “I wrote the last sentence, and I knew it was the last sentence,” she says. She paid to publish the book herself.

Arnett set up tables at churches, sororities, bookstores and even at a dollar store, selling her pride and joy. “Most of my adult life, I realized there were people in my neighborhood that influenced me greatly. This book became a thank you to people I didn’t have sense enough to appreciate when I was a child.”

Luck of the draw

It took Arnett two years to write the book and five years to get it published.

The pivotal moment came in the summer of 2000, when she won a scholarship to the Cranbrook Writers Guild Conference.

Her instructor there was Michael Steinberg, a creative nonfiction guru who edits The Fourth Genre, a literary journal. She gave him her book. He read it and was immediately sold.

Steinberg called Ladette Randolph, who edits a new literary nonfiction series called “American Lives” for the University of Nebraska Press.

On Steinberg’s recommendation, Randolph read Arnett’s book.

“I found it so original,” says Randolph. “It is so interesting, because she never feels sorry for herself. She’s got these amazing moments. She’s really very clever, a very smart woman.”

Arnett’s lyrical writing was the key, says Randolph.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. If I were a playwright, I’d see it as a play.”

It was 10 days from the time Arnett gave her book to Steinberg that she got the call from Randolph. Arnett says when she heard the good news, “I was dancing the mad fandango.”

Her publishing feat is impressive for many reasons. First, many editors shy away from creative nonfiction because it lacks widespread commercial appeal. Second, the book was self-published, which carries a stigma with many editors. Third, Arnett lacked connections, probably the most important variable in publishing.

Jane Friedman, managing editor of Writer’s Digest, says “only a handful” of the thousands of self-published books get picked up by a traditional press.

She says writers are better off writing query letters and getting an agent.

As for memoir, “Everyone has a life story. And everyone thinks theirs is special. It’s really hard to do it well. Really, no one cares. It is kind of unusual for someone to have their memoir picked up by a mainstream press or university press.”

Friedman says the number of books published annually keeps going up, now topping 100,000 titles a year. That makes it harder than ever to get attention. Yet if a Random House sees that a self-published book sells 5,000 copies, “they’ll take notice.”

Randolph says she launched the “American Lives” series to give voice to writers like Arnett.

The publishing house is putting out 2,500 hardbacks of Arnett’s book. It’ll keep getting pressed in cloth until sales slow. At that point, it’ll be issued in paperback. Luckily for Arnett, the series is getting hot.

The fourth book in the series, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, by Ted Kooser, was a finalist for Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers Award. The book is flying off the shelves, with 10,000 copies sold. Despite a lack of major reviews, commercial publishers are taking notice, says Randolph.

Steinberg says Arnett’s key was believing in her work and not letting it die. “Who knows what can happen when you walk into a writing workshop with a manuscript?” he asks.

“You need an advocate who isn’t you and has influence with other editors and agents. You can network a book into an editor’s hands. And from that point, what’s in the book is what matters.”

Fate plays a role.

“When an editor takes a book or I take a piece as the editor of a journal, I have to fall in love with it. It’s a lottery, a game you play. Finding the right match for your writing is like finding a mate. There aren’t a lot out there.”

Voice of hope

As for NYC’s Dr. Fullilove, she says some people write for all of us. Arnett is one of those rare artists.

Fullilove says she read the book in December 2001 as she counselled New Yorkers devastated by the terrorist attack. Particularly stunning for her was Arnett’s story of a young mentally handicapped boy who was playing with a toy gun when a rookie cop shot him in the presence of neighborhood children.

The story tells how Arnett’s father, noticing how shocked and despondent the children were, decided the kids should put on a memorial play.

“I always thought of that story, the whole year,” says Fullilove. “It gave me hope, for the creativity and courage that’s in all of us. Her dad, he wasn’t rich, he wasn’t powerful, but he just thought about it, he recognized the problem and came up with a solution. It’s possible for everyone. We can use whatever we have to help ourselves in time of crisis. It’s a wonderful story.”

With her 75th birthday approaching in July, Arnett is energized. She writes three to four nights a week, never before 9 p.m. She’ll often stay up past 3 a.m., and sleep late.

“I’m just getting started. I’m not going to stop now,” says Arnett, a sparkle in her eye.


Visit the author’s Web site at


Check out the “American Lives” series at


Contests for self-published books gather attention from publishers. Check out contests and writers info at

Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]
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