This month marks the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The following review was originally posted in March 2012, but it is reposted here because Parker Rhodes’ The Ninth Ward uniquely captures the horror of that devastation from the viewpoint of a child.
There is, quite simply, no place on earth like New Orleans. I fell in love with it twenty-five years ago one hot and muggy fall weeknight. I sat on a bench in front of Saint Louis Cathedral (Jackson Square was, strangely, almost deserted), smoking a cigar and listening to one lonely kid blowing on a trumpet. The sad tune bounced off the walls of the church and the surrounding structures, and seemed to inspire a haunting chorus of spirits that surrounded me in the darkness (New Orleans is filled with spirits—you can feel them). It was a night that still haunts me. Since then, the place has mattered to me.
On August 29, 2005 the city got a double whammy. Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm, hit New Orleans head on, blowing windows out of skyscrapers, tossing cars and buses around like toys, and ripping huge chunks off the roof of the Superdome where thousands who were unable to get out of town clung to one another in fear for their lives. When it passed, New Orleans breathed a sigh of relief and people went back to drinking on Bourbon Street (even though the power had gone out). Laissez les bon temps roller!
Then, the levees gave way.
What followed was more horrifying than anything Dante could have dreamed up for his visit to hell.
Today, the evidence of the destruction can still be seen in places like the city’s Ninth Ward, the area hardest hit and one of the poorest. The easternmost ward runs north and south from Lake Ponchartrain to Chalmette. Today, it is still largely the landscape of nightmares, large parts of it still desolate, like some deteriorated movie set, a stark reminder of the life-and-death drama that played out there 7 years ago. Or was it just yesterday? The spirits of Katrina’s dead hover timelessly.
Jewell Parker Rhodes is not a native, nor even a resident of New Orleans. But she is conversant with the spirits of the place, and made much of it in her 2000 novel “Voodoo Dreams – A Novel of Marie Leveaux.” The Ninth Ward is her first book for young readers.
I always thought that I would prefer a hurricane to a tornado any day, because you have advance warning and can get away from a hurricane. But that assumes you can get away. What if you don’t have a car? What if your social security check doesn’t come until the second Wednesday, and the hurricane comes 1 or 2 weeks before? That is precisely the scenario that Rhodes presents in The Ninth Ward. It isn’t pretty.
The heroine—and truly she is—of Rhodes’ novel is 12-year old Lanesha. She lives in the Ninth Ward with Mama YaYa, a woman unrelated to her who is in her eighties. Mama Ya-Ya is a midwife who brought Lanesha into the world. Lanesha’s seventeen-year-old mother, unfortunately, died after giving birth to her. Her mother was a “Fontaine girl,” a woman from a wealthy uptown area of New Orleans, who fell in love with a young black man from the Ninth Ward.
Lanesha’s uptown family has nothing to do with her. She dreams of becoming an engineer, and of someday building bridges:
My first bridge would be from lower Ninth Ward to Uptown, New Orleans. If I built a beautiful bridge to my family, maybe they’d walk across? Or else let me?
Her mother never said who Lanesha’s father was, so Mama Ya-Ya is all the child has. But the older woman’s unconditional love has given Lanesha a life of hopefulness, strength to endure, and a mind that will allow her someday to do great things.
Mama Ya-Ya knew the child was special because she was born with a “caul.” It was a sign. Mama Ya-Ya is good at reading signs, always praying at her bedside shrine of catholic saints and voodoo gods and goddesses.
Lanesha’s mother lies in uptown in St. Louis Cemetery #2—although Lanesha never visits. She doesn’t have to. Lanesha, like Mama, has “the sight.” Lanesha’s mother is right there with her and Mama. They are both used to seeing her half-reclining on an upstairs bed. She never talks, but the two living occupants take her presence for granted.
This all seems so fantastical, but the more time you spend in New Orleans the less odd it becomes. There are not a few people who have “the sight,” or claim to, living there. Voodoo isn’t just a tourist attraction, but I’ve not gotten up the nerve to investigate those parts of town where it is a lively reality. Maybe someday.
The story progresses day-by-day, through moments of playfulness in the sun to then to days in school where Lanesha is shunned because she is different to —well, we know what’s coming. So does Mama Ya -Ya, even before the weather reports start coming through. Only Mama is confused. The signs show that New Orleans will survive the hurricane. That’s good. But there’s something else she just can’t quite put her finger on. It bothers her.
When reality floods in, we share the horror with Lanesha, her friend TaShon, Mama Ya-Ya, and their dog as water pours in through the front door, then up the stairs, forcing all of the occupants into the attic. Then the water invades there too, forcing them onto a dresser, then onto the roof. Outside, the bodies of animals float by in the toxic waters, along with tree branches and God-knows-what else. Surely, Lanesha tells TaShon, someone will come now that the storm has passed. But we all know better.
This is billed as a book for young readers. I can’t help wondering, however, whether this might be too intense for some of them. It is a sad and sobering read for adults. It should, however, if young readers are of a sensitive nature, cause them to look differently on those from areas like the Ninth Ward, people who are poor, people who are desperate, and realize that they aren’t really that different. Some are just more fortunate.
Writers sometimes exaggerate either the goodness or the badness of their characters, idealizing or damning for greater effect. Rhodes has clearly idealized Mama Ya-Ya and Lanesha, and I suspect has projected a lot of herself onto the young Lanesha, who loves to read, play math games, and who plans on a future different from what she has known. We know that not all the ward residents were thus inspired, and that some of them probably weren’t very nice people. But every one of them was a human being, and what they endured in the aftermath of Katrina was unimaginable. Reading The Ninth Ward injects that realization straight into your heart—no matter how old you are.
A lot of controversy followed in the wake of the storm, as government agencies passed the blame, city politicians dodged responsibility, and lawsuits started flying. A lot of human systems failed. Then the religious radicals started in about Katrina being the wrath of God brought down on a sinful city. But Lanesha doesn’t worry about such things. She just thinks about surviving, living, and continuing to thrive. She is a child, and children don’t analyze: they just confront experience head-on. Mama Ya-Ya gives Lanesha the last word in explaining the presence of suffering in a brief conversation that speaks to readers young and old alike:
“God sent the flood because people had been bad.”
“That’s the story–because people had been bad. But I tell you, Lanesha. Sometimes a storm is just a storm. A flood is just a flood….It doesn’t matter how the flood started. What matters is how it ends.”
“With a rainbow.”
Copyright March 23, 2012 Isaac Morris