A TALE OF TWO DISPLACED FAMILIES
City of Refuge
by: Tom Piazza
After reviewing Why New Orleans Matters last week, I was so impressed I picked up Tom Piazza’s post-Katrina novel, City of Refuge, as a companion piece. This proved more apropos than expected, for Piazza’s memoir of falling in love with New Orleans and then nearly losing it via Katrina so clearly forms the framework of City of Refuge that at times I could almost catch glimpses of its skeleton imbedded in the pages.
Published two years after Why New Orleans Matters, City of Refuge follows two families from opposite sides and strata of town. The two protagonists are near opposites, yet their diverging paths cross in the book’s opening and closing pages, tying them together through shared experience. SJ has always lived in the embattled Lower Ninth Ward but was saved from a life of violence and thuggery by the discipline of the Army and love of the wife who kept him straight until passing away at a young age. Craig, on the other hand, grew up in Ann Arbor but loved New Orleans culture and moved to the city with his wife over a decade prior. He now edits the local weekly magazine Gumbo. While residing deep in entitled Uptown, he has an eclectic and empathetic worldview and makes sure his young daughter and son are exposed to various view points, taking them to watch Indians emerge Mardi Gras morning and taking them to parades in the Lower Ninth (where he initially crosses paths with SJ and his sister).
The novel opens inthe months prior to Katrina. SJ has buried his grief in his carpentry business and cut himself off from the rabid second-lining that he celebrated when his wife was alive. Silently, though, he has become a pillar of the community and refuses to abandon it despite violence and poverty. His daughter has grown and gone but he is helping his sister Lucy, who struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, raise his late-teen nephew Wesley who both respects and is intimidated by his uncle. SJ’s nephew is at the crossroads. He is starting to fall in with a rough crowd and was recently arrested for beating his girlfriend to gain their respect. Thus, SJ struggles to reach the boy without pushing him away.
Piazza’s strength as a writer is his complex empathy, as I pointed out in my previous review, and thus Lucy is portrayed as a whole person, not some stereotypical junkie to be glossed over. She loves her son and tries to be a good mother, aware that she is letting both Wesley and SJ down when she gives in to her addiction. When Craig and his wife Alice fight, Piazza gives us insight into what both are thinking, forcing us to empathize with both and keeping the reader from picking a hero and villain. Both have valid points. It surprises me that more writers aren’t as generous with their perspective.
Craig loves his life in New Orleans and the access and status that his job steering the popular weekly grants him but Alice longs for a more typical middle-class life in safe neighborhoods with good schools and none of the hassles of this complex city. The two still love one another, but are unsure whether they can survive this war they unwittingly drag their children into. When they are forced to flee the ruined city, Craig is racked with guilt and panic attacks as he realizes he can no longer argue to bring his children back to such an environment yet can’t bare to abandon his city in its hour of need.
City of Refuge weighs in at 403 pages, but it is a quick and compelling read. You are well over a hundred pages in before the storm hits, but the characters are so vibrant you hardly notice. Piazza does an excellent job portraying the uncertainty and slowly unfurling horror—it’s easy to forget that the disaster gradually and incomprehensively unfolded over several days rather than being a wham-bam instant tragedy—and follows the two families through the two typical ways people sought refuge: one fleeing town through miserable traffic and ending up spending much more time than anticipated with family or friends and the other unable or unwilling to leave and thus herded through the Superdome, Convention Center, and eventually out of town on buses where they are dispersed far and wide before finally finding temporary refuge.
By focusing on these two families, Piazza is able to encompass the broad experience of Katrina. It was a disaster of such epic proportion that no story could truly encompass all perspectives, but Piazza manages to hit most of the major themes. At times the characters that were so vibrant in the opening pages lose focus as they cope with the storms ravages and aftermath, becoming more everymen and everywomen representing the broader experience of the storm. This feeling is bolstered by pages of interwoven non-fiction narrative about the tragedy and national reaction. This is not so much a flaw in the storytelling, though, as an artistic choice to use these two families as mediums to channel the spirit of thousands of disposed voices.
Nevertheless, Piazza never lets his characters get completely swept away in the flood. What drew me to his work initially was his ability to turn a phrase that pierces yoru brain while gut-punching you with equal force, such as this acknowledgement that Craig and Alice’s young daughter is not only aware that she’s a pawn in her parents’ battle over where to build a life, but has sadly learned to adapt:
“If Annie was worried or upset, she didn’t’ show it. Without realizing it, she was practicing a skill that both her parents had acquired as children, a way of maintaining a substitute life while hanging over the abyss of her parents’ unhappiness, as if hanging between two railroad cars running along not-quite-parallel tracks. Obviously an impossible situation, so she summoned up a world that she could have some control over, at the tip of a pencil, or Magic Marker or crayon or pastel. When she got tired of that, she escaped into a book.”
A heartbreaking but honest portrayal of collateral damage unwittingly caused by warring parents.
I was unsure of where City of Refuge was going to wind up, and its ending is a tall glass of melancholy with a twist of hope. It concludes during the triumphant Mardi Gras following the storm and though the characters are only beginning to rebuild their lives, it’s clear they are now heading in truly opposite trajectories. It is a story told with depth and sensitivity and a masterful attempt to whittle such a broad and incomprehensible tragedy into a concise and comprehensible work of art. If you’re looking to truly understand the human element of the events of fall and summer 2005, this is a great place to start.
[Although my review ends here, I’m including a lengthy excerpt as postscript. I’ve spoken much about Piazza’s ability to understand and relate differing points of view. There is a passage in the book where Craig, working for a magazine while seeking refuge in Chicago, interviews a displaced African-American teacher. Her words transcend the tragedy to what ails our entire society today. I have to wonder if this is based on a real conversation and felt it was worth sharing for those with a few more minutes to spare.]
The woman did not smile along with him. “I am a teacher,” she said. “I have taught young people for almost fifty years. I am seventy-four years old.” At Craig’s unfeigned look of surprise, she said, “Does that surprise you? I was born in 1931 during a rainstorm in Algiers, Louisiana. You know where that is. Right across the river from downtown. There was no bridge at that time; you took the ferry if you wanted to come to New Orleans. My parents raised me and my three brothers through the Great Depression and the Second World War, what they called Jim Crow times. I have seen many things come and go. We had to sit in our own place in the movie theaters, we could not go to the public pool, or the beaches by the Lake. But I have never seen a time this bad in our country. I am not just talking about this particular event of Hurricane Katrina. There was an aspiration toward something better that does not exist today.”
The woman’s sound was one Craig had heard on many occasions from older African-Americans—the formal diction, the essential seriousness, the indifference to making an impression—the gravitas—a word that Craig hated although he used it all the time. Listening to these people, usually older, he always felt exposed, as if his measure were being taken and he was being found wanting. What, after all, had he done to help things? He asked this woman, who have her name was Mrs. Gray, where she had taught.
“Lawless High School, and then at McDonough 35 until I took my retirement. What people need to know is that there are schools in New Orleans with no books, with no light fixtures in some classrooms. Where there should be a toilet in the lavatory, sometimes it is only a hole in the floor. And no toilet paper; some children had to bring their own toilet paper to school. I am telling you the truth. How are young people supposed to learn in such an environment? How are they supposed to feel that something is expected of them? School is a place where you learn values, and among them is the value of yourself as part of the larger group. What are these conditions saying to our young people?
“Do you see this as a function of racism?”
The lady regarded him with that look again, which he did not know how to read; it was not appraising, exactly. She seemed to be sifting, weighing, feeling the texture of his reactions and their timing, thinking, Which kind is this one? How far has he gotten; how much distance is there? How real was the concern? The tacit assumption was that white people with any grasp at all of what racism actually was, and how it worked, were as rare as albino elephants.
“It is not really about racism,” she said, “as far as it goes. Our society has always faced racism. You notice I say ‘our society,’ because I don’t believe that racism affects only the people of color, as they call us now. The racism hurts the people who have it, also. I will explain it this way. When integration came many white people left the city of New Orleans because they did not want to have their children attending integrated schools. This, really, is where the collapse of the public schools started. But now . . . these people who moved may have felt they were doing right by their children, but look at what the long-term effect has been, with the increase in crime, and poverty and public assistance. As long as we are thinking about an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ we are thinking the wrong way in our society.” She stopped talking, and fixed him with the look again. Uncomfortable, he asked her in what part of town she lived.
“I live in the Lower Ninth Ward on North Derbigny Street. My husband died six years ago. My entire life was in that house—photos, my teaching awards, scrapbooks. I imagine I have lost everything I own except what I was able to take with me to the Superdome on that Sunday. But it is not really what we each have lost individually. It is about what we have lost collectively.”
The woman’s calmness and clarity and intelligence affected Craig strongly, and he hoped he would be able to re-create that sound and affect on the page. When the conversation seemed to have come to a close, Craig thanked her for her time and she offered her hand, still seated on the couch. “Good luck writing your article,” she said. “Do the best you can. Let people know what your are hearing.”