Travel Back in Time with “Gone Before Spring: A Retro Look at Alger Heights”

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock Photos.

Did you ever roll up your hair around orange juice cans and then try to sleep on them?

Can you remember sipping a Tab while listening to “Ode to Billie Joe”?

Then you probably know exactly where you were when you heard of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

And you will enjoy “Gone Before Spring: A Retro Look at Alger Heights,” being presented at 7 p.m. on June 7 at the Grand Rapids Public Library main facility, 111 Library St. NE.

“I’ve been obsessed with all things retro even when I was living in it,” said local author Sheila Solomon Shotwell. Her new novel, “Gone Before Spring,” is set in 1967-68 in Alger Heights and the neighborhoods surrounding Garfield Park.

The library program will also feature slides of the neighborhoods from the 1960s presented by local historian Melissa Fox. Edith Rashewsky, who owned Mitchell’s Young at Heart clothing store in Alger Heights during the era, will be a featured guest at the library event.

Sheila Shotwell & Melissa Fox
Sheila Shotwell & Melissa Fox

Shotwell released her coming-of-age tale last December and expects to release a sequel this summer.

“The best part of writing the book is being able to use retro visuals and hearing from people who enjoyed it,” Shotwell said. “I really enjoyed reconnecting with people from my past.”

Shotwell said when she used to work at Community News Center her co-workers would often laugh at her stories and tell her she should write a book. In 2012 her husband, Gregg Shotwell, published a book, “Autoworkers Under the Gun.” She went out east with her husband to promote the book.  A 12-year-old great niece in Massachusetts asked her husband if he was going to write a book for children. Sheila surprised herself when she piped up, “No, I’m going to do that.”

She worked on the book from 2012-2015 with a writing group, but her big break came when she decided to write the book as fiction instead of memoir.

“I realized I didn’t have to be accurate in fiction, ” Shotwell said.  “It made sense to me to tell the stories that way. I rarely read non-fiction and I love fiction. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t know there is a book waiting for me at the end of every bad day.”

Shotwell has also been a volunteer with a psoriasis support group because she has dealt with the skin disease.

“Suddenly it hit me. That was the hook I needed,” Shotwell said.  Along with typical teen troubles like first love and a bossy sister, her eighth-grade heroine Ruth Ann is tormented by an ugly rash on her arms and legs. She fears the rash will ruin her social life if it isn’t gone before the short sleeves of spring.

Author Sheila Shotwell will release her follow up novel this summer.
Author Sheila Shotwell will release her follow up novel this summer.

Shotwell recreates the era with a treasure trove of memories from defrosting the freezer with hot water and an ice pick to putting her latest purchases on layaway at the local store.

A mother and grandmother, Shotwell was religion school director at Temple Emanuel until 2004, and accompanied ninth graders on a trip to New York every year for about a decade. This abundance of teen exposure helped her to create the realistic language and believable frustrations of her young characters.  She said her teenage grandson has been her consultant on current songs and video games for the sequel.

Although the names of the stores have changed over the years, Shotwell said Alger Heights maintains the same feel she remembers from her teen years there. Although the book is appropriate for young adults, it’s not really written for teenagers.

“It’s for people who remember the time,” she said.  “The story is kind of girly. I didn’t expect men to be interested. But the fact that many male readers have enjoyed it gives me hope.”

Shotwell will be available at the event to sign copies of her book.

*Photo courtesy of Thinkstock Photos

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