City of Refuge – Book Review

city of refuge City of Refuge by Tom Piazza

How far in the past must something have happened to qualify as historical fiction when someone writes about it?  Fiction about World War I and II are historical fiction, Vietnam-era, sure.  What’s the cut off?  The 1980s?  1990s? What about late 2005?  Really good historical fiction gives the reader a feel for the time and place, helps them feel that they lived through the events being discussed.  “City of Refuge” does all of these things and it does them powerfully and impeccably.

“City of Refuge” follows the lives of two families from just before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans through months of the aftermath, until the first Mardi Gras after the devastation.  SJ lived alone in the Lower Ninth Ward with his sister and often in trouble nephew near by; his father built the house he lives in, and he enjoyed many happy years there with his now-deceased wife.  Craig lives in a nice neighborhood near a good school with his  wife and two children; he adores everything about New Orleans, although his wife is becoming more and more annoyed by the many challenges of living there and wants to leave.  Both families make it through the storm and out of New Orleans alive – a feat in and of itself – but then have to deal with survivor stress and trauma, trying to survive in their new situations and keep their families in tact, and the question of whether or not to return to New Orleans.

Piazza’s story was somewhat personal for me.  Although I did not know anyone living in New Orleans at the time of Katrina, I was teaching in Englewood on the South Side of Chicago when the storm hit.  Many families in areas like the Lower Ninth had friends or family in Englewoods and other neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago and our school received more than a few students who fled the devastation with their families, one into my classroom.  I was teaching in that area as a member of Teach for America and we also got two teachers who had originally been assigned to New Orleans moved to our group for placement in the Chicago schools.  The teachers had only been in New Orleans a short time, but my student had lived their all her life.  She seemed to adjust fairly well – 2nd graders are resilient – but I’m sure it wasn’t easy leaving everything you’ve ever known, even if she didn’t talk about it.

I found myself thinking about my student, Kimari often as I was reading “City of Refuge.”  This was made particularly easy by the fact that neither SJ nor Craig is actually the main character or main focus of the book.  “City of Refuge” is really about New Orleans, Katrina, the flooding, and the fate and character of New Orleanians.  I almost wouldn’t even categorize this as a novel or fiction, but as history or current events with a fictionalized aspect to it.  I went through “City of Refuge” with a stack of post-its next to me and left strips of them scattered throughout the book.  If I listed even half of them this review would be FAR longer than you want to read, but here are a couple:

If you are in it you don’t see the news coverage, the anchorman, the commercials for Dodge trucks, any more than Job saw God and Satan make their wager at his expense.  The mind cannot process all the disjunction, the endless din echoing in the Superdome halls and the Superdome halls and the sour itch in your clothes, the booming echoes overhead in the Dome, with its patch of sky visible, the intolerable hallways clogged with people sitting on the floor, waiting for the bathrooms, through the endless stretch of ruptured time, on lines that wind off into the gloomlight as if following the curve of the rings of hell, but a perverted inferno, set up by the guilty for the innocent.
– p. 168

The writing is so disturbingly powerful, it made me feel, if not like I was there, at least that I was watching from a vantage point just beyond the chaos.

And they very likely did not know that this exact scenario had been predicted in detail a year before Hurricane Katrina in a computer simulation dubbed “Hurricane Pam,” conducted by Louisiana State University, nor that the study’s conclusions and recommendations had been shrugged off by most of the officials who should have been listening, nor that the federal finding to implement the study’s recommendations was cut off by President George W. Bush, who needed the money for other things.  And so they couldn’t have known exactly how despicable  lie it was when the president told the news media later that week that nobody could have predicted the levee breaks.

This sort of thing drives me crazy.  The same thing happened in regards to fire safety near my parents’ home in Southern California in the 90s.  Either someone had done a study or someone had written a book (I’m a bit fuzzy on the recollection) about a perfect storm for fire in Laguna Beach.  Surprise, surprise, one year later it happens!  I’m sure there are all sorts of disaster predictions that DON’T come true a year later, but it does seem that perhaps these things should be take a little more seriously, no?

Okay, that last paragraph started to get a little off-topic.  However, it does show the sort of strong feelings that “City of Refuge” brought out in me.  It was depressing, yet hopeful, to the point, yet lyrical.  In short, “City of Refuge” is a really, really fantastic book that I completely recommend for those who are interested in what really went on in New Orleans and the way people dealt with it and continued on with their much-changed lives.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.

I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour.  Check out some of the other tour hosts for more reviews.  Links go to the host’s site, not to their specific review.

Wednesday, August 26th: Rough Edges

Thursday, August 27th: Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

Monday, August 31st: Word Lily

Tuesday, September 8th: Book Chase

Thursday, September 10th: Cheryl’s Book Nook

Wednesday, September 16th: Linus’s Blanket

Thursday, September 17th: Book Addiction

Monday, September 28th: Devourer of Books

Tuesday, September 29th: Lesa’s Book Critiques

Wednesday, September 30th: Luxury Reading

15 comments to City of Refuge – Book Review

  • I definitely want to read this book. It sounds so interesting, and it seems like just last week I was watching the events unfold on CNN. Great review!

  • This one sounds powerful. Like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina impacted everyone. I don’t there there was a red-blooded person alive that didn’t mourn over that event. I had friends that went down there to help in various ways, and the stories they brought back were horrifying. We in Florida also know the terror of watching a massive blob of stuff on the weather channel approaching your home. We had just gone through three devastating hurricanes in a row when Katrina came, and remember we all sat in empathetic horror, watching it come.

  • I also thought this one was pretty amazing. I like how you said that the city of New Orleans is the main character of the story, not either of the men or their families – I didn’t think of it that way before, but that is absolutely true. I also questioned the classification of the book – I would say it’s historical fiction, because it’s fiction about a specific time and place in history, but is 4 years ago really “historical”? I don’t know. Either way, it was a breathtaking book. Great review.
    .-= Heather @ Book Addiction´s last blog ..A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman =-.

  • I am looking forward to finding this one!

  • You had me sold on this book with your first paragraph! Very good opening. :)

  • Wow, Jen, great review! I’ve often wondered what qualifies as historical fiction. I think when you take real events from history and flesh out the details with fiction, that is hist. fiction. Doesn’t matter how long ago as long as the events really occurred. At least I think that’s how it works!

    Thank you so much for the time spent reading and reviewing City of Refuge. I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  • Wow, this sounds like a hauntingly compelling book. Your review is fantastic!

  • Excellent review! I can tell the book meant a lot to you!
    .-= Amy Reads Good Books´s last blog ..Southern Women Writers =-.

  • Chad Sayban

    I suppose anything can be considered historical fiction if it happened in the past – no matter how ‘past’ it is. The important thing is whether or not it’s a good book. From your review, it certainly sounds like a book worth reading.

  • New Orleans is probably my favorite city ever. One of my sisters was living there at the time Katrina hit and it was very scary and surreal. Luckily, she evacuated and was fine, but it made the horror a little more personal for me. Sounds like a great book.
    .-= Stephanie´s last blog ..Banned Books Week: Children’s Literature =-.

  • This will definitely be one of the unsolicited books I keep and read. It sounds so interesting.

    I remember reading some kind of definition of historical fiction and, for some reason, 30 years in the past comes to mind. But who can really be sure? At some point, this novel will be considered historical fiction. Worse case scenario, you’re ahead of your time – but we already knew that. :)
    .-= Literate Housewife´s last blog ..#201 ~ Her Fearful Symmetry =-.

  • I also loved this book and was blown away by Piazza’s excellent writing (my review). Terrific review of this powerful book.

  • Carol Sensenbrenner

    I’ve read City Of Refuge twice. Your review makes me want to read it again. Great review!

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