City of Refuge by Tom Piazza (Harper Perennial, 2008), 432 pages
New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina. One black family from the Lower Ninth Ward, with roots in the neighborhood, in the soil. One white family transplanted from Michigan into New Orleans. Of the transplanted family, the husband, Craig, loves the city, the culture of New Orleans. His wife’s a little frightened by what the high crime rate and more unsavory aspects of the city could do to their young children. Craig works at a local alternative newsweekly.
Of the other family, the one with a long history in New Orleans, SJ is a builder, a carpenter. His wife, the love of his life, died years ago. His daughter’s off in college, and his day-to-day family consists primarily of his sister, Lucy, her 19-year-old son Wesley and some neighbors.
Right off the bat, I can sympathize with Craig’s draw to the city. There’s certainly something New Orleans does right that few other places in the United States do. I visited New Orleans pre-Katrina, in 1998, and I was entranced. The first half or so of this family’s story, though, is not really about New Orleans or Katrina. Rather, it’s about a troubled marriage. This part wasn’t very interesting to me.
I quite like how Piazza conveys the characters’ ties to the earth, to the dirt, to the community that’s melded together uniquely in New Orleans — how people are a product of and at one with their surroundings, the ground, the dirt. Even the memories, the history, is physically, tactilely, part of the place. He does this well. This is something it would behoove us, as transient people, to learn. It’s something I really loved about Kathleen Norris’s Dakota, too.
At a couple points early on, there were too many names being thrown at me; I couldn’t keep them all straight.
I read Dan Baum’s Nine Lives earlier this year. The dialect in City of Refuge seems to come and go and is not nearly as convincing as Baum’s use of it was. Piazza’s book is probably easier to read, though, for people who dislike or struggle with dialect in books.
The book contains a lot of anger. Much of the book is dark, too. These characteristics fit the content being conveyed, though.
While I was reading City of Refuge, I didn’t love it; it was dark and sad, angry. When I finished it, though, I realized I’d enjoyed it and it was a good read — and also, as I stated above, that Hurricane Katrina was a dark time and brought out lots of dark emotions, naturally.
In some ways, this read was personal. Sure, I’ve visited New Orleans, but that’s not why. Not really. Rather, Siloam Springs, the town I just moved away from, received several bus loads of evacuees, as well as some New Orleanians who arrived ahead of the storm to ride it out with local family members. I worked at the newspaper at the time, so I was thrust into the midst of the effort.
Tom Piazza is the author of nine books, including the Faulkner Society Award-winning novel My Cold War, and the short-story collection Blues and Trouble, which won the James Michener Award for fiction. His Why New Orleans Matters was written immediately after Hurricane Katrina. He lives in New Orleans.
Jennifer Hart of Book Club Girl will interview Tom Piazza on Blog Talk Radio September 10.
Check out the rest of the TLC Book Tour stops for City of Refuge.
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