Under the guise of a starting-over story, this novel deals with subtle racism today, overt racism in the past, and soul-searching about what to do about it in everyday living.
East of Troost’s fictional narrator has moved back to her childhood home in a neighborhood that is now mostly Black and vastly changed by an expressway that displaced hundreds of families. It is the area located east of Troost Avenue, an invisible barrier created in the early 1900s to keep the west side of Kansas City white, “safely” cordoned off from the Black families on the east side.
When the narrator moves back to her old neighborhood in pursuit of a sense of home, she deals with crime, home repair, and skepticism—what is this middle-aged white woman doing here, living alone? Supported by a wise neighbor, a stalwart dog, and the local hardware store, we see her navigate her adult world while we get glimpses of author Ellen Barker’s real life there as a teenager in the sixties, when white families were fleeing and Black families moving in—and sometimes back out when met with hatred and violence. A regional story with universal themes, East of Troostgoes to the basics of human behavior: compassion and cruelty, fear and courage, comedy and drama.
About the Author
Ellen Barker grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and had a front-row seat to the demographic shifts, the hope, and the turmoil of the civil rights era of the 1960s. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from Washington University in Saint Louis, where she developed a passion for how cities work, and don’t. She began her career as an urban planner in Saint Louis and then spent many years working for large consulting firms specializing in urban infrastructure, first as a tech writer-editor and later managing large data systems. She now lives in Northern California with her husband and their dog Boris, who is the inspiration for the German Shepherd in East of Troost.
I’ve been a voracious reader since I was old enough to hang over the side of my dad’s chair and look at the words as he read stories to us. I’ve got the black-and-white photo to prove it. I can’t remember not being able to read.
After the fire last year, my shell-shocked brain couldn’t even focus on a newspaper. I read the comics, which didn’t register, and some days I did the Sudoku or the crossword. Eventually I got my hands on Jane Austen, my go-to reading in times of trouble, and was just moving on to Anthony Trollope when I started get- ting ready to drive east.
Before I left, however, I went to a local library book sale and got a paper grocery bag full of books for five dollars. I made a beeline for the table labeled Literary and scooped up P.G. Wodehouse and Trollope, then went to the Mystery table and added a few lightweight murder mysteries for good measure. Trollope novels have all the human drama and joy and failure that modern novels have, but they are safely removed to another century. The New Jim Crow got in the bag too. It’s fascinating, yes, but it’s tearing me apart. I peek into it for a bit, but I always go back to Wodehouse before I turn out the light. The problem is that it’s not like The Fire Next Time, which is rending but in the past. The new Jim Crow is now, and it’s here, and it’s my problem as much as anyone’s, no matter where I live. And I can’t think of one true thing to do about it.
That’s part of my whole worry about what I’ve done, coming back to the house where I grew up during a dramatic demographic shift of the 1960s and 1970s. Was I part of the problem, and now I want to be part of the solution? Is a white woman moving into a mostly Black neighborhood any kind of benefit? Does the neighborhood need or want my presence? Am I providing stability by taking one problem property and making it something more like normal? What is normal, or what should be normal? Am I Pontius Pilate asking “What is truth?” It is not my neighborhood anymore, not for me to say.
I’m glad I’m not being questioned in court under oath about how I made this decision and why. Because the truth is different every day. I need to talk this out, and there is only one person I can talk to. My childhood best friend, Angie.
Angie lived on Montgall, the street that has now disappeared from 50th Street south. In my mind Montgall has completely disappeared, but the expressway slips slightly west at 50th and Montgall remains where it always was from 50th north to 30th, and then appears sporadically from 30th to the river.
Angie and I went to the same public kindergarten and then the same Catholic grade school and high school. Our families were denizens of the far southwest corner of our parish, so all of our grade school friends lived north and east of us. The school bus picked up her family and then mine, so we almost always sat together. We bonded, however, during a playground discussion of birthdays. We were both born on January 20, and that was enough to cement a friendship between two six-year-olds that lasted through high school and beyond. I’ve been friends with her longer than I’ve been friends with anyone else. That longevity, the shared experiences of our youth, and the embarrassing, sentimental, and ordinary things we know about each other mean that I know that I can trust her totally. I know that she will support this move I have made. I know she will. I know that fact about her better than I know anything about myself.
So I text her and I tell her I’m in town and ask if she has any free time in the next week or two. Months go by when we don’t contact each other, and she doesn’t know I’ve moved here. She will assume nothing. She will just answer the question I have asked and let me know when she is available. I know this.