Race, Class & Miscegenation: Jean Alicia Elster fictionalizes family history in her new young adult novel, "How It Happens"


Jean Alicia Elster and her book How It Happens

Jean Alicia Elster’s new young adult novel, How It Happens, chronicles the hardships and inequality faced by Black women from the late 1800s through 1950 and beyond. The story she tells has a personal note. It is the fictionalized account of three generations of Elster’s family, starting in Tennessee with maternal grandmother, Addie Jackson, and continuing in Detroit with her daughter, Dorothy May Ford, and granddaughter, Jean. 

The book begins with a prologue that defines “miscegenation,” meaning the marriage, sexual relation, or other intimate affiliation of a person who is white and someone of another race. This topic has a lasting effect on this family when a prominent white man becomes the father of Addie’s daughters. The events that happen to the characters illustrate how race and class work against the women of this family in those eras. 

May Ford describes how it happens to her daughter Jean: 

“It’s so hard to explain … so hard to explain. It was a different world back then. My mother—Grandma Jackson—she didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t help the hand she was delt. No colored woman had a choice back then.” May Ford stopped and looked straight ahead. Then she turned and looked at Jean.

“You have choices. Your father and I saw to it that you girls would have choices.”

Each generation of women confronts struggles, and each generation builds upon the successes of the previous one, though racial and class inequities continue to beset their lives. 

Many of the women in the family become teachers, including Jean. Yet when Jean excels in her coursework, her teacher fails her on her project. She learns the true reason, which is racism, and there’s nothing that she can do about it. Jean sees how her identity obstructs her achievements in that way and myriad others. 

Elster is the author of a children's book series, and How It Happens is the third novel in a trilogy. Her BA is from the University of Michigan, and she went on to become a lawyer with a degree from the University of Detroit School of Law before becoming a writer. I interviewed her about her book and family story. 

Q: You were a lawyer and then became a writer. What prompted you to start writing? 
A: Yes, I did practice law for several years. Quite honestly, I started writing when I was six years old. As soon as I learned cursive writing, I began writing stories that were just a few sentences long in a notebook. It’s something that happened organically, and I cannot remember a time when I was not writing something: stories, poems, novels. In fact, I’ve burned or shredded more novels than I care to remember!

But I started writing professionally after I got married and had children. With two youngsters in tow, I wanted to do something that was home-based. In this pandemic era, working from home is practically the new normal. However, at that time, it wasn’t something that was easily arranged or even considered an option in most fields, particularly as a lawyer. So, I fell back on my Bachelor of Arts in English degree from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and hung out my shingle, so to speak, as a professional writer. I began writing essays for magazines such as Ms., World Vision, Christian Science Sentinel, and Black Child. I also connected with an entertainment lawyer here in Detroit and served as a ghostwriter and editor for some of his clients. I was introduced to the field of youth lit when I contracted to write juvenile passages for a national testing service.

Q: Does being a lawyer inform your writing or change how you write? 
A: I am very big on research prior to beginning a writing project—which supports my quest for authenticity in everything I write—and I attribute that to my training and practice as an attorney. For example, I have a book on the history of fashion so that I can describe clothing and fabrics that would actually have been worn during a particular time period. My middle grade and young adult books take place primarily in the early to mid-20th century. I have a dictionary that was published in the 1930s that I consult to make sure that certain words would, indeed, have been used in a certain way, or used at all, during that time frame. Also, my middle grade and YA books are historical fiction, based upon my maternal family’s past. Because of that, I also travel quite a bit before I begin the writing process. I need to feel a sense of place. I want to know details such as what roads my characters might have traveled as well as the topography of the landscape. Certain elements will never make it into the book, but they can inform how the characters speak or the actions they take. And I visit genealogical and historical libraries both locally and in my travels in order to know more about my ancestors and where they called home. 

I am also very methodical when I write, and that is definitely a trait I picked up while practicing law: I write from a storyboard that is created from a foam-backed, black tri-fold board and brightly hued Post-It notes. That allows me to not only monitor the progress of the narrative but also easily make changes as the story evolves and comes into its own.

Q: Your book’s acknowledgments note that How It Happens is the third book in the Ford family trilogy. Tell us about this trilogy. 

A: The trilogy is comprised of middle grade and YA historical fiction and is based upon my maternal family’s history. It explores how these family members confront and seek to overcome the effects of racism—and other societal obstacles—upon their lives and well-being.

Book one, Who’s Jim Hines?, is a coming-of-age middle grade novel about a 12-year-old African-American boy—Douglas Ford, Jr.—growing up in Detroit in 1935. Doug's father owns the Douglas Ford Wood Company, and as Doug helps his father in the business, he unravels the mystery of a man named Jim Hines whom he always hears about but has never seen. In discovering Hines's identity, Doug also learns much about the realities of racism in Depression-era Detroit.

The second middle grade novel, The Colored Car, follows another member of the Ford family coming of age in Depression-era Detroit. In the summer of 1937, both during and after a train trip south with her mother and sisters to Clarksville, Tennessee, 12-year-old Patsy discovers some life-changing truths about her world both in her hometown of Detroit and in America below the Mason-Dixon line.

How It Happens, the third book in the trilogy and a YA novel, is both a prequel and a sequel to the first two books. It is an intergenerational story of three African-American women that begins in the turbulent post-Reconstruction period and ends in the post-World II industrialized North. The book explores the defining periods and challenges—race relations, miscegenation, sexual assault, and class divisions—in the family’s history as these three women struggle to stake their claim to the American dream.

Q: How It Happens has a very personal connection in that it’s based on your family. Why did you decide to write a fictionalized account of your family’s history? 
A: Each book represents the core of oral histories that were passed down to me by various family members: my grandmother, my mother, my uncle, and my oldest aunt. With the amount of additional research that I did for each book—at both the genealogy department of the Clarksville-Montgomery County Public Library in Tennessee and the Burton Historical Collection in the Detroit Public Library—I definitely could have written a nonfiction book about my family’s history. But fiction offers a certain level of freedom to a writer: the imagination allows a writer to explore the depths of situations that are otherwise constrained by the factual perimeters of a primary source document. For instance, when I was presented with a will of a white attorney that listed my great-grandmother’s husband as a beneficiary—confirming a facet of family lore that had been shared many times over by my grandmother—instead of stopping right there with that documented fact, I could let my muse consider and explore the complex circumstances whereby the son of a very prominent white family would leave part of his estate to the black husband of the black woman who bore that white man’s three daughters. A nonfiction treatise on the topic would of necessity explore the sociological and sexual dynamics between blacks and whites in the post-Reconstruction South. But my imagination could dig deeper into the soul and subconscious realities of such a situation.

Q: This book includes intense, heartbreaking topics and situations that illuminate the extreme challenges that Black people have met and still encounter. What was it like looking back on your own family’s challenges and fictionalizing them? 
A: Actually, it was a very cathartic experience! I had been carrying inside of me these tales that my grandmother, mother, aunts, and uncle had shared within the family over many decades, since I was a young child. Writing this book of fiction allowed me to unburden myself of the weight of these stories. I was also able to step back and marvel, as evidenced by my own family, at the resilience of the human spirit as it rebounds and proceeds, literally at all costs.

Q: There are many moments in which the women of the family support each other, from Dorothy May and her sister Patsy discovering the financial support of their white father to Addie’s encouragement of her daughter’s move to Detroit, May’s efforts to send her daughters to college, Patsy’s tuberculosis, and the assaults that Jean faces. What did you discover about these women’s strength as you wrote? 
A: Their strength was intergenerational as it was a result of and enhanced by the fortitude of the women of their time as well as those who came before them. Yet, this strength came with a burden to live their lives in such a way that they continued to pass on this stamina of spirit. 

Q: What draws you to writing for children and young adults? How did the YA audience affect how you wrote How It Happens
A: As I explain in the FAQ section of my website, for the protagonists in my middle grade books, 12 years old is the perfect age of adolescence: characters are beginning to test the waters of adulthood while knowing full well they can never completely immerse themselves back into childhood. Placing my primary characters at this age, I am able to create plots that explore adult themes through the experiences of someone for whom it is all new and, for the most part, innocent. These old child/young adult characters allow me to take advantage of a naturally occurring tension within the plots because their responses, while genuine, are imbued with a reality of often misplaced hope and trust.

But, whether I am writing for children or young adults, in every book I create, the protagonists are wrestling with the question, “What kind of world have I inherited and how do I navigate within that world?”

Which leads me to the young adult audience that is the focus of How It Happens. While race is a central theme in Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car, the additional topics that are at the core of the plots within How It Happens—class divisions, miscegenation, and sexual assault—require a more enhanced worldview and mental/emotional development. Creating a YA novel was a natural progression as I was compelled by the plot to address those topics without any major adjustments in my creative thought processes.

Q: What’s on your nightstand to read? 
A: Passing by the Harlem Renaissance author, Nella Larsen. 

Q: With the trilogy complete, what’s on the horizon for you next? 
A: I’m plotting my next book. It will be YA historical fiction but this time based on my paternal family history. So I will be traveling to Paducah, Kentucky, and Seale, Alabama for research purposes and to absorb some local color. Because my paternal grandfather was a jazz musician/composer in 1920s Detroit, I’ll be arranging to begin some alto saxophone lessons (I have a musical background in piano and violin). I’ve already begun taking the oral histories of family members and others who knew the family. I also hope to glean some musicians’ lore from a cousin who is an acclaimed jazz bassist.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.