Love in Cleveland: a story-review of CROOKED RIVER BURNING

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There’s something special about a love story set in the time and place one’s parents fell in love.

Paris? London? Niagara Falls? Nope. I’m talking about Cleveland, Ohio.

The real love story (that eventually begat me and my siblings) started with a blind date. Here goes: the young man who would become my dad met the young woman who would become my mom at her apartment door. Her first words to him: “You’re not as bald as they said you were.” Ah, romance. Long story short, she liked his car, a racing-green Austin Healey convertible, and him too, no doubt.

Crooked River Burning*, a novel by Mark Winegardner, explores parallel love stories—between a boy from Cleveland’s West Side and a girl from Cleveland’s East Side (read: upstart vs. old money); and between the people of Cleveland and their city itself.

From the book jacket:

In 1948 Cleveland was America’s sixth biggest city; by 1969 [the year my parents married] it was the twelfth…In the summer of 1948, fourteen-year-old David Zielinsky can look forward to a job at the docks. Anne O’Connor, at twelve, is the apple of her political boss father’s eye. David and Anne will meet—and fall in love—four years later, and for the next twenty years this pair will be reluctantly star-crossed lovers in a troubled and turbulent country.

The city of Cleveland is a microcosm of this changing country. The author gives the reader a window into organized crime in the 40s, when we meet real-life Clevelander Eliot Ness; into the 50s rock and roll scene starring disc jockey Alan Freed; and into the race riots of the 60s, when we meet Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major U.S. city.

For sports fans (Winegardner is also the author of The Veracruz Blues about baseball), there are stories plenty about the Indians and the Browns (with Art Modell cast as the Machiavellian villain he was, IMO.) Masterfully blending fact (replete with entertaining footnotes) and fiction, this novel is comparable to the works of E.L. Doctorow. Where Doctorow explored New York, Winegardner explores Cleveland.

Does Winegardner know Cleveland! One of my favorite Cleveland bits—and never more appropriate than now, as we endure “wet-winter” into April:

“In Cleveland there is no spring. In Cleveland there is winter, then a wetter-meaner sort of winter…Then one day winter/wet-winter ends and, bingo-bango, it’s summertime.”

But why talk weather when we can talk love? Wingardner on love:

“A person can be in love with the idea of love. A person can fall in love with the idea of another person. Less commonly, a person can fall in love with another person.

In fact, a person always falls in love with the idea of another person, not the person. Falling in love with the actual person takes time and too much honesty…

Some people luck out. The thing they’ve been calling love turns out to be just that. Such people exist. Film at eleven.”

Oh, you were looking for love between David and Anne? I’m not spoiling much when I tell you that the most romantic setting in the book, a snowy New York at Christmastime in a posh hotel suite, and Anne is down with the flu. On the other extreme, the setting of the Cuyahoga (“crooked”) River on fire finds our protagonists in, well, love as real as it gets.

Is the book perfect? Not quite. For me, some of the real-life Cleveland profile sections ran a little long: among them, Mayor Carl Stokes, Cleveland newspaper editor Louie Seltzer, maybe-murderer Dr. Sam Sheppard, pioneer news broadcaster Dorothy Fuldheim. Still, this book will find a place on my bookshelves, alongside Ian McEwan’s The Innocent, perhaps, for its mastery of a real time and place in history overlaid with a timeless love story and for a lyrical yet playful use of language.

But back to our fictional lovers…through their twenties and thirties, David and Anne attempt to make their childhood professional dreams (Cleveland mayor, and war correspondent, respectively) come true. But, like thwarted love stories talk of ships passing, most of us don’t become our childhood heroes.

If the real Cleveland love story—starring my dad and my mom—could have met the imagined one starring David and Anne, they would have come together in the late 60s. Both couples were in love as the real city burned its land and its water. The Cuyahoga River burned (helping to create the Clean Water Act); and the Hough Riots, among the first of the 1960s race riots, turned Clevelanders against their neighbors and even against themselves.

Like many Clevelanders who could, my parents left the city for a house in the country, where they would raise a few chickens and ducks, a goat named Esmeralda, and three human kids. In trading one setting for another, I’m sure they’d say they gained more than they lost. I wonder about those who didn’t leave.

Did Winegardner intend for this dual love story to be a cautionary tale? In 2018, one could read the book that way—especially through the lens of race. One of the most chilling parts of the book comes from Anne’s perspective. It’s a month after the riots, and Anne is questioning everything in her life and in her city:

“Human beings don’t destroy their own homes, do they? In Anne’s experience, they do…Rome burns. Has burned, is burning, always will be burning. Look harder. Smell it. It’s not Rome we’re talking about, sport. (Who knows but on the lower frequencies, Cleveland burns for you?) Yet you sit there. We sit there. Don’t move.”

My rating: 4.5 stars

What’s the best book you’ve read about your hometown? If you were going to write your own love story, where would you set it?

*Published in 2001 by Mariner Books (576 pages). Yep, I’m late to the party.

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Thanks! ~ Rebecca