Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans tracks the stories of nine people living in different parts of New Orleans and experiencing the different lives that the city has to offer between two major hurricanes that swept through the city, each devastating the city but ultimately having results vastly different results. Just a few of the colorful people whom we meet are Frank Minyard a gynecologist who after achieving the heights of riches and a comfortable life wants do do more meaningful work so and so decides to become the county coroner; young Belinda dreams of being able to escape the predestined road of motherhood to be the first in her family to attend college; John Guidos the former store owner who was born to be a person his body hasn’t allowed him to be; and Wilbert Rawlins, a band teacher so dedicated to the poverty stricken teens who don’t have families of their own that he almost loses some of the important things in life.
I was drawn in by the wonderful slices of life right away. Baum alternates the stories over the years , and I loved getting to know the people and learning their about their hopes and dreams and see the progress that they made and the setbacks and challenges that they faced. I have been to New Orleans a couple of times and it has so much culture and rich scenery and beauty, but it was so fascinating to learn more and see some of the hidden dimensions of the city that may not be readily apparent to visitors. I learned of the krewes (restrictive social clubs) formed by the different groups in New Orleans, often with all white membership and their battles with the city over participation in Mardi Gras and the Black-Indian celebration which brought communities together and instilled pride in heritage. Some of the lives that Baum follows belong to the different krewes and it is interesting to see their approach to membership in the clubs and how some members feel that they should change to be more accommodating to the times and to outsiders. I read about the New Orleans Police Department and the awesome amount of corruption and scandal that plagued the department for years. I could go on and on about the interesting parts of New Orleans culture that I discovered in this book.
By the time they got to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina I was fully involved in each of the lives presented in Nine Lives, and it made it that much more poignant to truly have an idea of what the stakes were for each person and what the loss meant to their individual dreams and to the lives of their families. Dan Baum conducted extensive research and interviews in writing this book, but that doesn’t detract from the wonderful human element, and none of this story feels dry or inaccessible. He has a way of writing that let’s each person’s character and personality come through. Their individual voices are respected and heard and the book is in their own words as much as possible. I was delighted to get to know the people introduced to me in this book and I celebrated their triumphs at cried at their tragedies. There is a much richer experience here than just learning about the effects of Hurricanes Katrina & Betty . If you love reading about different communities and enjoy getting a glimpse into people’s lives then you will truly enjoy this book.