SJ Williams and his family have lived in New Orleans all of their lives. Their roots and ties in the community are very strong. All that SJ has left of his immediate family is his sister Lucy, who has struggled over the years with drug and alcohol dependency, her son and his nephew, Wesley, and a grown daughter who has moved away from New Orleans. Wesley is a teenager, a little lost from growing up amidst the uncertainty of his mother’s lifestyle and love, and chafing at the strict example and path of discipline that his uncle would have him follow. He is struggling to find a place in New Orleans society that is his own and stumbling along the way. SJ lives a strictly regimented life as a way of keeping the haunting demons of war and the death of his wife at bay, his only wish to keep his remaining family in one piece.
Craig Donaldson and his wife, Alice, are a couple on the brink of losing it all. Their marriage, and the life in New Orleans which had once been a fulfilling and exciting adventure is crumbling slowly under the weight of festering anger and resentment, exacerbated by the changing visions each has for their family. Even as they are working on their marriage with a counselor, it is an exercise in force of will for them to communicate civilly with each other. Craig is satisfied with the life they have made in New Orleans, he loves the culture, his friends and the environment- he’s also happy enough in his position as editor of a local New Orleans Magazine. Fatigued by frequent hurricane evacuations, Alice is increasing stressed about the violence in the city, their quality of life and the safety of the couple’s two young children, Annie and Malcolm. Both families are at the edge and doing the best they can to hold it together when their lives are further devastated by Katrina.
I read Nine Lives: Life and Death in New Orleans, by Dan Baum earlier this year and I was blown away and spent weeks talking it up to my mom and my friends. I jumped at the opportunity to read more on the subject of New Orleans and Katrina, and then immediately started to worry that I wouldn’t like the book. Nine Lives is non-fiction, extremely well written, and shed so much light on the culture and workings of New Orleans, both before and after Katrina, that I would know immediately if City of Refuge wasn’t authentic. I worried that the fiction wouldn’t hold up to all my newly learned facts.
My fears were groundless because Tom Piazza gets it. He gets New Orleans, he gets fiction, and good dialogue, and intricate and conflicted characters, and lots of other things that made this a wonderfully touching and interesting book, which was very hard to put down. It was also grey! And I love grey in books because it means that I will talk to myself constantly about the characters and what is going on, and what they should have done, and how I love them but they are wrong, or hate them but have to admit that they are right- and I did that with this book right from the beginning! Every time I picked it up I was completely absorbed in the lives and heartaches of these families as they tried to find their way.
When a book is really good, sometimes there isn’t much that can be said without, I don’t know, gushing. This is book where the writing is wonderful, rich and intimate, as are the relationships between the characters. You will easily learn a lot about New Orleans’ colorful history and the politics and circumstances which made Katrina in particular so devastating, you will learn about the changing attitudes the people of this country had toward Katrina and the people of New Orleans, and frankly you will learn things that will have never occurred to you before because they are just not within your realm of experience.
I have never lived in a place afflicted by large storms, with 55 mph winds, that is in actuality beneath sea level. Who knew that if you can afford it that you book a hotel room outside of town for when you evacuate? It makes sense when you think about it, but the thought never occurred to me, and it’s what people have to do, sometimes several times a season. I’m not even sure if I would be able to swing that. I did know that you have to prepare your windows for when storms come, but who knew that you had to worry about someone stealing the piece of wood that you use to secure your window? That’s what happened to SJ and it’s probably happened to someone else too. There were a lot of little details like that, which contributed to making this story so real. I just loved it. So much work would have to be expended to rebuild in New Orleans and each family had to decide whether it was ultimately the right place for them, and whether they could go back and create a life there. Believe me, you will want to know what they decide.
You should read this! It’s highly recommended.