JULY 21, 2015
VISITING MY LOCAL PUBLIC LIBRARY, I came across a display for a new book, just published in February: A Penguin Named Patience: A Hurricane Katrina Rescue Story, a picture book for children by Suzanne Lewis and Lisa Anchin. I couldn’t help but stop and leaf through this attractive volume about how penguins living at the New Orleans Audubon Aquarium of the Americas faced sweltering temperatures in the aftermath of the storm and flooding and had to be transported to San Diego’s zoo to keep them safe and healthy.
On one hand, I was impressed by the persistence of Katrina in the cultural imaginary. Nearly 10 years after the catastrophe, we can point to numerous stories that grapple with the multifaceted dimensions of this devastating event — many by major writers and cultural producers: Dave Eggers’s nonfiction novel Zeitoun, HBO’s series Treme, Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke, and Josh Neufeld’s graphic book A.D.: After the Deluge. As someone whose father died during the evacuation from the area and who has some family who came out okay, but some who lost everything in the flooding, I was intrigued by how the writer and illustrator of A Penguin Named Patience would approach children with the tragedy. They do so gently, using animals to talk about the loss of home and the need to rely on each other in the face of calamity. Worthy lessons for a children’s book.
In thinking about books for young people, though, I couldn’t shake the sense that Katrina and the flooding are the stuff of dystopia — a natural catastrophe combined with a massive engineering failure and, often, pitiful government response and support. The storm and its aftermath seemed to play out real life hunger games, and I began wondering if other writers might be teasing lessons out of Katrina for young readers. Indeed, several children’s and YA authors — some quite well known — have written books for adolescents about the catastrophe.
And yet, many of these books, such as Jacqueline Woodson’s Beneath a Meth Moon, Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ninth Ward, and Paul Volponi’s Hurricane Song, are anything but dystopic. They are each earnest and moving accounts of young people trying to survive and understand the unfathomable. The plots of all three narratives are relatively simple: characters have to figure out how to live in the aftermath of a traumatic event. The assumption is that they “have to,” as resignation isn’t offered as much of an option. That “figuring out” takes different forms, suggesting varied understandings of the conditions that make living through and after trauma possible, or even worthwhile. But most YA books about Katrina focus on how the individual has to overcome the catastrophe she finds herself facing; only one, Volponi’s Hurricane Song, links the storm and flooding — and the response to it — to larger socio-political and systemic failures.
Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ninth Ward, published by Little Brown in 2010 and the recipient of a Coretta Scott King Honor Award, is told from the perspective of Lanesha, a young black girl whose mother died in childbirth at 17 and who now lives with Mama Ya-Ya, her caretaker who practices a set of African-inspired, somewhat voodoo-esque spiritual rites. Lanesha loves math and has the “sight”; she can see ghosts, including her dead mother. In some ways, Rhodes’s offers us an exoticized New Orleans (reminiscent of some of her earlier work in a trilogy of adult novels comprising The Legend of Marie Laveau), but Rhodes’s Ninth Ward can also be an all-too-real and violent neighborhood. Lanesha frequently has to face random bullying from other young people.
Rhodes balances the exotic and the violent through a narrative voice, Lanesha’s, that’s hopeful and often endearing. Lanesha wants to be an engineer and build bridges, a metaphor perhaps for her desire to build a class bridge to her uptown relatives, who want nothing to do with her. Indeed, her desire to build bridges to connect people — living to living and living to dead — makes her a likable character, one we want to protect. She’s hungry for affection — “It does bother me that kids don’t sit beside me. I just don’t let it show” — and wise enough to know the dangers of ruminating too much on what one doesn’t have: “I tell myself I know better than to want something so bad.” Such emotional pragmatism, though, doesn’t dull her profound hopefulness, despite living with a dying caretaker, having been abandoned by other relatives, and facing an impending storm. Watching news reports about the approach of Katrina, Lanesha turns to her books: “As it gets darker and darker outside, I ignore the TV and read about bridges, famous builders, and the engineers who imagined the mathematical symbols and signs that people can’t see. I wonder how something that starts off so invisible turns into metal, bolts, and wires, connecting point A to point B.” For Lanesha, math and the “sight” are on a continuum of connection, allowing the unseen to facilitate bridge building, both in the real world and to the spiritual world. With so many possibilities for connecting, who wouldn’t be hopeful? Still Mama Ya-Ya recognizes that having the “sight” can be a burden: “It’s not bad talking to ghosts. Just bad if you want a ‘more normal life’ in this here world.”
Lanesha will need her hope to survive the harrowing time ahead of her. Since Mama Ya-Ya is too old and infirm to leave, the two stay put in their Ninth Ward home to weather the storm, having stocked up on any supplies they could get. After the flooding starts, the plot moves quickly, with dangers escalating. We watch Lanesha and her friend TaShon, who has escaped from the Superdome where other evacuees face horrific conditions, move up to the second floor and then to the attic to flee the rising waters. Mama Ya-Ya dies, but not before telling Lanesha, “The universe is shining with love, baby. To survive this night — that’s what you need — love.”
The remainder of the novel is a tightrope walk between the awfulness of the rising waters and the attempt to remain hopeful and positive, while they first escape to the increasingly sweltering attic, and then to the mosquito-plagued roof. The situation gets dire. After having punched her way out of the attic and onto the roof, Lanesha begins to realize that no one is coming to rescue them. Three days after the hurricane and two since the flooding, she approaches despair: “There’s no TV. No radio. No news from anywhere.” But her resourcefulness kicks in. She sees a boat in the distance, and, recognizing that “EVERYTHING IS MATH,” she calculates angles in her head and uses a floating tree to dislodge a boat and maneuver it toward her and TaShon. She gets caught in the branches and nearly drowns as she’s struggling with the tree, but her ghost mother helps to untangle her, and she and TaShon row to a bridge where others have gathered to escape the flood. The novel ends movingly with Lanesha, now safe, saying: “I keep singing. I sense, if they could, the dead would build a bridge. Help the living. If their spirits were concrete, we, and the rest of the Ninth Ward (all of New Orleans), would be forever safe. Those levees. Ghost bridges.” We get the sense that Lanesha has herself made concrete the power of the spirit world in thinking through the problem of surviving and maintaining hope. She concludes triumphantly, “I feel like I can do anything. Like I’m butterfly strong,” and “I’ve been born into a new life. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I just know I’m going to be all right.”
Some readers might at this point be hard-pressed to accept Lanesha’s resilient hopefulness, much less the intermingling of the material and spiritual worlds. For a story set in the Ninth Ward, an area devastated less by the hurricane itself and more by an insufficient levee system, the novel is quick to suspend questions about fault and blame. Mama Ya-Ya reminds Lanesha of the story of the The Flood in the Bible, saying, “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.” And Lanesha herself, smelling the waters of the Mississippi in her neighborhood, poses a question of cause that she quickly dismisses: “Did the hurricane make it happen? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter.” Instead of approaching questions that might link this narrative to larger concerns with government and the social good, the focus remains on the resourcefulness of people — in this case, children — to cope and survive in the absence of other (adult) help.
Lanesha’s optimism can thus seem unfounded. In the midst of the catastrophe, when stranded, Lanesha tells herself, and us,
Everything is going to be okay. I might build bridges that can cross any ocean, river, or stream. I might study butterflies, how they grow from a gray-white cocoon into something colorful and beautiful. I might study words and create my own dictionary. I might do anything when I grow up.
As I read through Ninth Ward, captivated by this young woman’s spirit, I couldn’t help but wonder on what ground she stood that allowed her such a firm sense of her own future possibilities. In one telling moment, she herself may have a sense of her own precarity, which she projects onto TaShon. In the middle of their stranded situation, she asks him what he wants to be when he grows up, and he responds that he’d like to be a golfer. Lanesha confesses to herself, “I almost laugh. The Ninth Ward doesn’t have golf courses either. No one I know has ever hit a white ball. Certainly not TaShon.” And yet, her response to him is encouraging: “‘Good,’ I say. ‘I’ll bet you’ll be a great player one day.’” It’s hard not to read this exchange as the author’s recognition that the book is making promises to its characters — and potentially its readers — that it cannot keep.
Then again, the presence of the spirit world throughout the book is a persistent reminder of the necessity of faith — of placing hope in the unseen, even when you might most doubt the outcome. In a conversation with me, Rhodes insisted that the spirituality in Ninth Ward is not a form of “magical realism,” but rather a connection to a living — and empowering — tradition linking back to African faith-based beliefs that suffuse southern Louisiana. Mama Ya-Ya says at one point, “Everybody in Louisiana knows there be spirits walking the earth. All kinds of ghosts you can’t see, not unless they want you to.” The ghosts are past generations guiding the next one, memories of them connecting the present with a mixed blood, hybrid African diasporic culture. Though not a native of Louisiana, Rhodes feels part of that tradition, maintaining that: “This is the book I was supposed to write. Everything in my life was preparing me to write this book, to write about an impoverished kid who loves to write, who feels unloved, who is resilient, who wants to know that everything is going to be alright.” Abandoned by her own mother as an infant and raised by her grandmother, Rhodes understands the importance of elders, and of trying to forge a connection with the past, especially if such connections are damaged.
While one might want more anger from Lanesha, more of a sense of outrage about the situation she and others find themselves in post-Katrina, her hopefulness suggests that when the material world fails us, when governments don’t provide the protection needed, we tap into other resources to survive. Drawing strength from one’s ancestors can help at least some to overcome deficient support in the present. At the crucial moment, when trying to figure out how to save herself, Lanesha remembers: “Mama Ya-Ya wouldn’t want me to give up. Solve problems. Think, Lanesha.” Lanesha may seem somewhat unreal, even magical at times, but isn’t surviving desperate circumstances a form of magic, especially when all you have are the unseen resources of soul, memory, and hope?
Beneath a Meth Moon, published by Pearson in 2012, is a beautifully written book by Jacqueline Woodson, recent winner of the National Book Award for her verse memoir Brown Girl Dreaming. Woodson, well known as a writer for young people, focuses her story not on New Orleans but on Pass Christian, a Mississippi Gulf Coast community nearly destroyed in Katrina’s storm surge. Laurel, the book’s narrator, is a white teenager who recounts through a series of flashbacks how her father and younger brother had fled the storm, while her mother stayed behind with her grandmother, who didn’t want to leave. We learn, through Laurel’s often sparsely elegant voice, that her mother and M’lady had perished in the storm, and that she, her father, and little brother have been trying to rebuild their lives, like so many affected by Katrina, in a different part of the country.
Woodson’s tackling of the impact of Katrina on those outside New Orleans, and on the white working class, arises out of an interest in telling stories that haven’t gotten as much airtime. In an afterword to her book, the author herself has explained that:
Laurel came to me in thinking about Katrina, and thinking about the ways in which so many stories have not yet been told. I decided to make Katrina part of the characters’ stories, because when Katrina happened I couldn’t deal with it — there was so much news and so much devastation and it was all so overwhelming. […] I couldn’t even discuss it, let alone write about it. As the years passed and I was able to take it in, I knew I wanted to put it back out in the world someway and talk about its lasting impact.
When I visited recently with librarians in the New Orleans Public Library system about books and programs for kids post-Katrina, Kim Tran, Director of Initiatives & Strategies, reported that adults were eager to talk about the storm in its aftermath, but young people seemed to refer to the storm itself less frequently, commenting instead on “The time we were in Houston” or “The time we spent in Atlanta.” At least initially, young people’s displacement seemed to make more of an impression on them than the storm itself.
For Laurel, the pain of displacement is made unbearable by the loss of her mother and M’lady, the latter figuring largely in her life as someone who encouraged her to write and express herself. Early on we learn from Laurel that “all I ever wanted to do was tell stories,” and M’Lady supported her habit, buying her notebooks. After her devastating losses, though, she sorely feels the absence of that support: “The notebooks M’lady had promised to always buy me no longer coming. M’lady no longer coming…” But memories of what happened persist, with little way to stop the accompanying pain they bring; in response, Laurel wants to close “my eyes against the voices and memories coming at me…” Instead of writing about her experiences, though, Laurel turns to meth, or “moon,” which she uses to repress thoughts and feelings about her losses.
One of Laurel’s best friends, Kaylee, offers writing as a way to work through the pain: “Maybe you can write it into the past, and that will help leave some of it there. People do that. They write stuff down and then it’s gone from them and they’re free.” But Laurel has trouble “writing away the past,” perhaps because writing is itself a technology of memory. Meth, on the other hand, offers a quick path to forgetting: “I felt like I was holding up the whole world and there was no water anywhere, no roads in front and behind me filled with empty land and tore-up houses. No past. Just this new, just this amazing, just this forever now.” Woodson excels at figuring the enticements of chemically-induced numbing, and Laurel’s narration is rarely less than poetic, resonant with something of an emerging tradition in YA literature about drug use. (See, for instance, Ellen Hopkins’s immensely popular Crank series, verse novels about meth addiction.) Its initial attractions aside, meth ultimately seems a truncated form of metaphor, offering an immediacy that links to nowhere, with no generative comparisons to connect and make sense of experiences. After a while, writing fails Laurel: “The writing hardly came to me anymore — the words were crooked and crazy. I’d forgotten how to spell easy stuff, and when the voices came, the stories got all blurry before I could even write them down.” Complicating matters further, Laurel has become essentially homeless, her father having kicked her out. She wanders the streets and crashes with other meth users as she looks for her next fix.
What Laurel has yet to realize is that writing to forget first requires accuracy, an honest confrontation with the pain that one wants to overcome. So Woodson introduces a helper character, a gay black 17-year-old named Moses, whose family had been ruined by meth, sending him and his sister into foster care. He’s a complicated character, who acknowledges that people find his “sister is everything they could pray for in somebody who ‘they gave a new life to.’ They’re still trying to figure me out, though.” One part of Moses’s complexity is that he’s queer — which is important not just for general gay visibility in YA fiction but because it allows Laurel to connect with him while forestalling the possibility of a romantic relationship that would serve as just another form of potential forgetting or displacing. If Moses is to lead Laurel out of her own personal wilderness, he needs to do so without offering her an empty promised land in exchange.
To deal with the meth use in his own family, Moses moves around town painting murals about young people who have died from meth overdoses. These memorials constitute a form of public pedagogy; Moses, talking about himself and his art, recognizes that most people think, “just pay him for the painting, and the county will find him a wall. The county’s happy to fill up empty walls with meth angels. Part of their anti-drug thing.” But the book isn’t totally sold on this pedagogic. In a passage that comes the closest in the novel to socio-political critique, Moses talks about why people give handouts to the meth beggars: “Because they’re hoping they’ll give you enough to make you disappear. They hope they can walk by here one day and not see you. And when you’re gone — even though they know in their hearts it’s because you died on that crap, they can make believe you got clean and their little coins helped it happen. That’s why.” Moses, and perhaps Woodson, implies that the county uses art instead of offering more substantive approaches to dealing with teen meth addiction. But does the art work? The county makes space for the art, but to what effects?
Ultimately, Moses not only helps Laurel by offering her real food and keeping an eye on her while she’s on the streets, but also by getting her to the hospital when she starts to overdose. After a couple of trips to rehab and reconciliation with her father and little brother, Laurel begins to rediscover the power of writing:
When the thoughts came hard — Jesse Jr. crying in my arms, the too-long, wet cuffs on my daddy’s pants, Mama and M’lady — I wrote. Wrote until my hand hurt, wrote until the itching didn’t bother me, until the memories didn’t hurt, coming on […] wrote about the happy endings and people laughing, about sun on water and people’s hair — I wrote about [my friend] Kaylee and the [cheerleading] squad, about gumbo and shrimp boils, about M’lady taking out my hem and telling me about my future.
Curiously, the passages in which Laurel describes the rhythms of writing resonate at times with the poetry of meth use:
Writing and pacing and writing and pacing till the words eased the pain. The Pass comes back, Laurel. The water, the light, you and your daddy watching those fishing boats come in. Jackson. Aunt G.’s laughter coming from far off, telling you how much you favor your mama. The Pass comes back, Laurel. The Pass comes back. Till the voices quieted down and the water stopped rushing in.
In the narration, meth use and writing become conflated, with the critical difference that writing quiets the voices down, while meth just silences them. Laurel is learning to hear those voices, but not be overcome by them.
Woodson’s work reveals her deep investment in the uses of writing to make sense of the past and work with painful memories. Brown Girl Dreaming, her memoir of growing up black and wanting to be a writer, is an often moving homage to writing as a way to save lives. But the character of Moses queers this vision, even attenuating a bit Woodson’s faith in writing. His memorials are important, and they connect him to Laurel, whose life he literally saves. But his critique remains with us: what else could we do, structurally, to support the traumatized, the down-and-out? Self-expression is surely vital in many ways. Is it enough?
Paul Volponi’s Hurricane Song: A Novel of New Orleans, the earliest novel of the three, published by Penguin as part of its young adult SPEAK imprint in 2008, tries to answer that question. The novel is told from the point of view of Miles, a young African-American teen who has moved to New Orleans after his mother remarries in Chicago and he’s not quite fitting in with his new family. He now lives with his dad, Doc Shaw, a jazz trumpet player who makes it clear that music is his top priority. He expresses little to no interest in his son’s passion, football, or his desire to play for his new high school. Hurricane Song explores how the traumatic events surrounding Katrina, particularly being stuck with thousands of others in the Superdome, will allow father and son to better understand one another and connect. Along the way, though, this moving and often pungent book offers some of the more socio-politically complex commentary about Katrina in YA fiction.
Volponi makes clear the social stakes in his novel early on. This is a poor family. Doc Shaw had experienced a homeless shelter as a kid. As the storm approaches, it’s clear that Doc, Miles, and his fellow musicians don’t have enough money to evacuate, so they head to the Superdome, where the city is providing shelter for those unable to leave the city. Almost immediately Miles reflects upon entering the Superdome that the authorities and guards “looked us over like we’d crossed the border from another country without any papers.” The intersection of class and race is starkly apparent: “Almost everyone of those voices belonged to black people. I saw some doctors, nurses, and soldiers who were white, but nearly everybody coming to get saved was black like me. And that sat like a rock in the pit of my stomach.” Comments on economic racial segregation bleed immediately into pungent descriptions of the increasingly awful conditions in the Dome: “I could smell the weed mixed with cigarettes, and after a minute, my head starts spinning. I felt sorry for some little boy whose father had his hand cupped over the kid’s nose and mouth.” A lot of recent YA, particularly dystopias, have offered us many images of young people suffering in a variety of “hunger games,” but Hurricane Song shocks with the power of veracity; these images are based on real experiences.
The situation intensifies as some of Miles’s teammates, his school’s bullies, start to plot to take over the Dome, shaking folks down and making them pay for “protection.” Curiously, one of the bullies echoes George W. Bush’s rhetoric about the war on terrorism: “This ain’t no charity, Miles. This is business. If you ain’t down with us, you’re against us.” Volponi laces his narrative with such touches when not directly painting a dire portrait of governmental incompetence, if not outright malfeasance. Hancock, the white guard in charge of taking care of those seeking shelter, seems more prone to suspicion than helpfulness, leading him to harass people. He wonders if the musicians have stolen goods they are hiding in their instrument cases, and he roughly demands to inspect them. The evacuees feel increasingly resentful of how they are treated — both by other evacuees and the guards — and they express their frustration through a political consciousness, shouting out “We ain’t no damn refugees!” That consciousness is well aware of unequal treatment based on race, and at one point Miles reflects that the situation of black folks in the Dome is particularly precarious in a racist society: “I didn’t even know the mayor’s name. All I knew about him was that he was a black dude. So I couldn’t see the president of the whole United States jumping too fast to answer his call.”
Doc and his friends also express themselves through music, which plays the role here that writing, murals, and math play in the other books. After the incident with Hancock, Doc picks up his trumpet and blasts out some angry notes: “To me, every one of those notes felt like a punch to Hancock’s head. And right then, I wanted to hear Pop play more than anything — fierce and hard.” Music moves from expression to community building in the Dome pretty quickly. Cyrus, a crazy old man who worked in the same club that Doc plays in, becomes distraught about being trapped in the Superdome. He starts to hallucinate that he’s on a slave ship — a provocative association between the history of slavery in the US and contemporary treatment of black people — and he commits suicide by throwing himself off an upper tier of seats. Fictionalized from an actual suicide in the Dome, the incident is more than just an accounting of the kinds of tragedies suffered; it allows Volponi the opportunity to have his characters organize and give expression to their individual and collective grief through a jazz funeral. Volponi has Doc trace out for us the slave ship references in his description of a jazz funeral march that both expresses loss and tries to generate hope: “When [the funeral dirge is] finished, we play with the joy of him going to a better place and never having to suffer again. The slaves who started this in these parts believed when they died their souls went back to Africa.” Doc encourages Miles to play on his drum, a gift he’d given his son, as a way to join in and participate, and we slowly see father and son start to mend their relationship.
Such familial touches blend steadily with political commentary. Miles reflects on Katrina, the suicide and the ever-worsening conditions in the Superdome:
I saw Cyrus’s granddaughters and thought about what Katrina had cost them. I didn’t know who they could grow up to blame or sue — the soldiers, the governor, or even the president of the United States. I was thinking how even the Supreme Court wouldn’t be high enough. That maybe they’d have a beef directly with God for sending the storm and making their skin the color that didn’t get saved fast enough.
Both Ninth Ward and Beneath a Meth Moon suspend questions of blame, but Hurricane Song confronts them squarely, and Volponi is willing to see insufficient responses to the storm through the lens of racism. Even the media come in for critique. As the evacuees are moved outside into the sweltering heat, journalists are waiting to report on and film the situation. At this point, Miles is jaded enough from his experiences to wonder about the usefulness of such reporting: “When that TV crew walked away, I couldn’t figure out if they’d done anybody any good, or just used [our] pain to keep people watching their channel.” But the characters, particularly Doc, realize that the media coverage of their situation might be turned to some good. Doc, Miles, and others start chanting, “We need help! We need help! We need help!” They turn their frustration, fear, and rage into protest in a scene very close to real events outside the Superdome in the immediate aftermath of the flooding. Hancock uses a bullhorn to try to subdue the crowd, but he fails.
Eventually, Miles and Doc flee the Superdome and try to find Pharoah’s, the jazz club that Doc had played in and over which the father and son live. They encounter one devastating scene after another, including floating dead bodies, a shark, looters, and police officers overwhelmed with the situation:
A bunch of cops were standing way off to the side, watching everything. There weren’t enough handcuffs in a whole police station to arrest all those people, so they didn’t make a move for anybody. But you could see how the cops were scared, too, and they never took their hands off the guns in their holsters.
To be fair, Volponi portrays good cops, not just bad ones, but his attentive realism and his unwillingness to sugarcoat the socio-political failings of the situation starkly contrast with Rhodes’s and Woodson’s texts. When I spoke on the phone with Volponi about his book, he reported to me that his Hurricane Song was not promoted in some library districts because it depicted government officials in an unflattering light. Volponi also paints the first steps toward rebuilding the city in harsh colors, with Miles noting how investment companies were eager to have poor blacks sell their damaged properties so they could start the process of gentrification.
The irony here for unaware readers is that Volponi is an Italian-American author, not black, and yet his novel seems willing to tackle the racialized dimensions of Katrina and the levee breaches. For sure, Woodson movingly captures the effects of trauma as they play out in an aftermath, and Rhodes probes the recuperative power of African-inspired spiritual traditions. Both are vital parts of the post-Katrina story. But Volponi’s witness narrative adds a further dimension. Miles tells us at the end of the novel:
I could still smell the stink and feel the heat rising, and the air getting heavy. I didn’t want to ever forget what that felt like. What happened to us there was too important to let go of, or to give a free pass to anyone who helped cause it.
It was part of history now — part of our heritage.
I still don’t know exactly where Pop and me will wind up, or if I’ll ever be in that championship game. But I know we’re part of something together — something that feels bigger than either one of us standing by ourselves.
Rather than the hope that Rhodes offers, Volponi situates his characters in a larger socio-political situation that calls for response. Surely we need Rhodes’s hopefulness, just as we need Woodson’s belief in the power of writing. But Volponi, who has spent much of his adult life working with incarcerated youth, makes no promises. He knows all too well how systems fail people.
It’s startling that the rawest and most political YA novel here is also the oldest, as though, with time, we grow accustomed to tragedy, patient like the penguin believing he’ll be taken care of. Part of the project of young adult fiction about Katrina should be shaping new collective understandings of social justice. These three books take us some way toward imagining such, each bearing witness to different experiences of natural catastrophe, human weakness, and governmental failing. How young readers will take up their messages of survival in the face of real-life situations bordering on the dystopic remains, of course, to be seen.