On the shelf: Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

detroitBy Lisa Boss

Grand Rapids Main Library


This is a book that gets under your skin.  The author’s sheer storytelling skill accomplishes the Herculean task of sparking interest in a subject many would rather ignore: Detroit.  LeDuff is one of those native sons that couldn’t leave fast enough after high school, but like a comet was eventually pulled back home.


Starting at the Alaska “Fisherman’s Journal,” and then rising to the “New York Times,” the Pulitzer winning LeDuff had been gone for many years before he returned, taking a job with the “Detroit News.”  He wanted to get to the bottom of what had happened to his hometown, and to his family, (two of whom died in Detroit, and not naturally).  His intimate stories have a Rick Bragg/Hunter Thompson flair, as he goes about the city exposing malfeasance, and raining down brimstone on the politicians and others responsible. Embedding with various groups, high and low, to uncover just how Detroit unraveled, he uncovers some pretty remarkable stories. The haunting vignettes of good people in absurd  (or worse, deadly) situations stay with you. They — we all — deserve better than what those who have torn the city apart have left there — a city that could rival Chernobyl in some respects. Not without ironic humor though, as when his brother steps way down the employment ladder, by taking an $8.50 hour job cleaning and boxing Chinese screws that “may be made in the U.S.” Or the odd Oprah/Gates Jr. moment when LeDuff discovers that he’s the “palest black man in Michigan.”


There’s plenty of blame to go around when they ask, “Who lost Detroit?.” How did the city that was rated the wealthiest in America, per capita,  in 1950,  sink so low?  What LeDuff leans into is the fact that while the nation initially felt unconcerned about Detroit, now it is being scrutinized more carefully, as if it were a portent.