Tom Piazza, City of Refuge
About three-quarters of the way through this book, one line rings familiar to anyone ever forced from home by circumstances we can't understand. Driving around his temporary home city of Houston, displaced New Orleanian Wesley Williams is disoriented by the useless map. Desperate to find his job and assume a grown man's responsibilities, Wesley thinks, "There was a whole world in Houston, obviously, but he didn't know what it was."
This neatly sums up Tom Piazza's take on the lives of people driven out of their city by Hurricane Katrina. They occupy a world of which they aren't a part. The forces in which they placed their trust have abandoned them in deepest need. And no matter which of a long series of painful choices they make, nothing will ever again be the same for any of them.
The bifurcated story follows the lives of a pair of New Orleans families. Craig Donaldson, husband and father, planted himself in the city as a young man and now regards himself as part of the community. But SJ Williams, his sister, and her son have lived their whole lives in the Lower Nine. New Orleans isn't something they picked up along the way; it exists for them in a bone-deep way.
In the days before Katrina, and the months after, the two families exist at opposite poles. White and black, rich and poor, schooled and self-taught: the Donaldsons and the Williamses display a spectrum of what made New Orleans great. Piazza's nonfiction volume Why New Orleans Matters, which covers many themes overlapping with this novel, explains why this mix of cultures and classes made the Big Easy a place of legend. Now he shows how that plays out in ordinary lives faced with one of the worst natural disasters in American history.
Piazza has a remarkable eye for the details which made Katrina so powerful to watch on the evening news. Streets littered with wedding photos, stuffed animals, and overturned cars serve as background for the characters’ intimate struggles. Each cast member has a unique voice, a take on the struggle to cope with catastrophe that belongs to each person alone. These features give the novel a psychological kick missing from much of the speechmaking that followed the disaster.
Some readers won’t appreciate Piazza's plain-spoken political opinions. He calls the Bush administration's disaster response "despicable." He openly condemns the government for its slipshod evacuation plans in the face of looming calamity. Anybody who still, at this late date, believes FEMA really did a "heck of a job" may balk at the author so explicitly taking sides.
Nevertheless, it's hard not to trust these characters as they struggle with whether they can or should return to their city. As Alice and Craig Donaldson battle over whether they can take their kids back to New Orleans with a clean conscience, we know there is no choice that will not exact a high price. We share SJ Williams' grief when the family strain impinges itself on his sister Lucy's health.
Throughout their parallel lives, the Donaldsons' wealth and connections give them an escape hatch the Williamses can never share. In the face of such destruction, it might be easy for an author to get glum and descend into cheap melancholy. But much of this book is touching, complex, and astonishingly funny. Like the city itself, "City of Refuge" has the power to dance in the face of overwhelming sadness.
Katrina exists at the back of this novel, but it isn't about one natural disaster. It's about the traits which unite and divide us. It's about how we respond to large forces beyond our control. And it's about how ordinary Americans from different walks of life cope. It's about us and the future. If we remember one simple moral, maybe it's Craig's realization when he discovers his life can exist in more than one place: "Say thank you, he thought. Say it and keep saying it until you believe it." And we do.