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.
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