"Crooked River Burning" by Mark Winegardner

This unexpected, but moving, fictional tribute to Cleveland teems with real-life figures like Eliot Ness and Alan Freed.

Published February 21, 2001 8:31PM (EST)

"What you don't understand about love," Cleveland political boss and one-term mayor Tom O'Connor tells his daughter, Anne, halfway through Mark Winegardner's novel "Crooked River Burning," "is that you don't fall in love with someone in spite of his flaws, but because of them ... When the things that are wrong with a person are things that interest you ... then you know you really have something."

The same can be said of the love of a place.

Mark Winegardner loves Cleveland. Old Cleveland. The Cleveland that existed before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and its upscale ilk came along and rescued the city from its status as a national joke. The Cleveland of the '50s and '60s -- its depressed downtown and optimistic suburbs, its local heroes and small-time hoods, its beleaguered sports teams, polluted river, belching factories, race riots ... flaws or not, he loves them all. It is this love -- shared by Winegardner's characters, many of them real live Clevelanders past -- that propels "Crooked River Burning."

So is it not the ultimate testimonial that, well before Winegardner's story gracefully and deliberately winds its way toward its destination, we grow to love Cleveland, too?

"Crooked River Burning" is also a love story of the more conventional sort. David Zielinsky, an ambitious, handsome boy from a working-class ethnic neighborhood, meets Anne O'Connor, a beautiful, smart woman from wealthy Shaker Heights. The year is 1948. They are young. They are feckless. They are drawn to each other, but smart enough to know their worlds cannot merge -- their backgrounds are too different. Instead, for years, their lives will run nearly parallel in a city they both love.

They will end up together, but not, at least not really, until the book's last pages. Telling you this doesn't ruin the story, since Winegardner makes no secret of it. His Cleveland holds plenty of mysteries anyway. He hints at them in simple, unadorned sentences, rather like these. Midwestern sentences -- solid, no frills. Sentences that tell as much in what they don't say as in what they do. Winegardner reveals things in an order of his own devising -- not wedded to chronology, but in the order, it seems, that they occur to him. Deftly, confidently, he weaves together the strands of his story, the lives of his characters.

David and Anne share these pages with people like Eliot Ness, who returned to Cleveland after he brought down Al Capone and fell on tougher times; Alan Freed, who invented the phrase "rock and roll" and staged the first rock concert; the notorious Cleveland doctor Sam Sheppard, whose murder trial was at one time almost as hot a topic of discussion in the city as the Cleveland Indians. Names you recognize, but maybe didn't know that much about.

There are other people in Winegardner's Cleveland. People you may not have heard of. Good people. Some maybe not so good. All of them interesting. All of them, somehow, worthy of Winegardner's love and our attention. All of whom, along with this city, we come to love in a way that is neither sappy, nor sentimental, nor unaware of their flaws.

It is because of their flaws that we come to love them. Then you know you really have something.

By Amy Reiter

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