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Where were you when the levees broke? For those of us not in the eye of the storm, that reference to newscasts from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina stays with us like 9/11 or, for an earlier generation, the Kennedy assassination. Reading City of Refuge, about the events and aftermath of Katrina, just a few weeks shy of the third anniversary, I clearly recalled newsmen hanging onto columns with coifs gone astray, the relief that maybe it wouldn't be as bad as expected, then the images of Americans stranded on rooftops with no food or water, begging for help, and the bodies floating.
By focusing on two families, Craig and Alice Donaldson, an upper middle-class white family, and the extended African-American family from the Lower Ninth, SJ, his sister Lucy, and her son Wesley, Tom Piazza personalizes the catastrophe in a way newscasts and documentaries could not, at least for me. In heavier hands, the white folks who got out and the black folks who didn't could have come off as cliche, if not somewhat opportunistic. But Piazza applies a light touch that contrasts perfectly to the weight of the subject. A black man enters into conversation with Craig Donaldson in the hotel where they both landed after hours in traffic, camping on lounge chairs if they were lucky, any space available if they weren't. We see white families at the Superdome. Pointing out that the difference was more rich vs poor than black vs white, or native New Orleanians vs transplants with someplace else to go, and sometimes simply folks who rode out other storms and figured on doing it again vs the more cautious. I also understood for the first time why people wouldn't leave: It's inconvenient and expensive, you can't leave your job, you have nowhere else to go, and most of the threats never materialize anyway.
Never having visited NOLA or The Big Easy, two names by which the city is known, may actually make me a good choice to review the book because I came with no preconceived notions of the city's unique culture. Tom Piazza had to create it for me, and he did an excellent job. He also steps back from time to time to show the huge dimensions of the loss and the government failures that allowed it to happen. Again, in the hands of a different writer, this might interrupt the flow, and again, Piazza handles it with a perfect touch.
I will say that I found the details of the Donaldson's marital issues that raged mostly around their differing feelings for the city, the least interesting part of the story. At first I attributed it to "author creep"––the way many literary authors today write about loosely disguised versions of their own lives––but soon saw the value of it in the context. As compared to the problems of SJ's family that included poverty, ill health, drug addiction, kids constantly in danger of taking a wrong turn, the Donaldson's problems seemed light. But having nothing else to compare them to, they exaggerated small things out of all proportion.
The best part about this novel is that, as in life, things don't always take the course you'd expect, and the end does not tie everything up in a package with a neat little bow. Tom Piazza's City of Refuge has the makings of a classic and the ability to become to Hurricane Katrina what The Grapes of Wrath was to the Great Depression.