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City of Refuge: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 19, 2008
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In the heat of late summer, two New Orleans families--one black and one white--confront a storm that will change the course of their lives.
SJ Williams, a carpenter and widower, lives and works in the Lower Ninth Ward, the community where he was born and raised. His sister, Lucy, is a soulful mess, and SJ has been trying to keep her son, Wesley, out of trouble. Across town, Craig Donaldson, a Midwestern transplant and the editor of the city's alternative paper, faces deepening cracks in his own family. New Orleans' music and culture have been Craig's passion, but his wife, Alice, has never felt comfortable in the city. The arrival of their two children has inflamed their arguments about the wisdom of raising a family there.
When the news comes of a gathering hurricane--named Katrina--the two families make their own very different plans to weather the storm. The Donaldsons join the long evacuation convoy north, across Lake Pontchartrain and out of the city. SJ boards up his windows and brings Lucy to his house, where they wait it out together, while Wesley stays with a friend in another part of town.
But the long night of wind and rain is only the beginning--and when the levees give way and the flood waters come, the fate of each family changes forever. The Williamses are scattered--first to the Convention Center and the sweltering Superdome, and then far beyond city and state lines, where they struggle to reconnect with one another. The Donaldsons, stranded and anxious themselves, find shelter first in Mississippi, then in Chicago, as Craig faces an impossible choice between the city he loves and the family he had hoped to raise there.
Ranging from the lush neighborhoods of New Orleans to Texas, Missouri, Chicago, and beyond, City of Refuge is a modern masterpiece--a panoramic novel of family and community, trial and resilience, told with passion, wisdom, and a deep understanding of American life in our time.
"Piazza knows New Orleans, its flavors and aromas, music and magic, pragmatism and joie de vivre. He also understands the full tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. . . . In unforgettable scenes of biblical consequence, Piazza dramatizes more devastatingly than any journalistic account the hurricanes shocking aftermath, aligning the failure to protect, rescue, and respect the people of the Lower Ninth with the sweeping brutality of war. By following his characters into the Katrina Diaspora and back again, Piazza tells a towering tale of self, family, and place, a story as old and heartbreaking as humankind itself." --Booklist (Starred Review)
"City of Refuge is an old-fashioned, realistic novel of New Orleans, with all the sensuousness, all the flash-point tumult, the easy-yet-hard-won virtue of the city, as well all the forthrightness, the deftness and affirming intensity of the form. People ask me when will Katrina begin to inform our art, when will imagination become essential to tell what the raw facts can't. Well, here's an answer: now. City of Refuge speaks eloquently into that silence." --Richard Ford
"To read City of Refuge is to realize that this is what fiction is for: to take us to places the cameras can't go. The novel's characters--and what happens to them--are unforgettable, and so is the portrait of New Orleans, the city Tom Piazza clearly loves with all his large, generous heart." --Richard Russo
"City of Refuge is a tremendously moving book. While reading it you will have to fight the urge to skip ahead to see what happened, and to whom. This is true even though we all know on a general level 'what happened' during Hurricane Katrina; Piazza takes what we know to a deeper, more human level. There are books that give back to art and there are books that give back to life--this book is among the latter." --Mary Gaitskill
"Whatever Tom Piazza writes is touched with magic. As a former longtime New Orleans resident, I was astounded at how brilliantly Piazza captured (in vivid detail) the nuances of his City of Refuge. Although this is ostensibly a Katrina novel, Piazza transcends genre or pigeonholing in what is one of the most deeply humanistic portraits of people coping with cataclysm since The Grapes of Wrath." Douglas Brinkley
"City of Refuge is a stunning, irresistibly absorbing novel. A dramatic tale about the ravaging impact of Hurricane Katrina, it is also an ode to the ineradicable beauties of a beloved American city and the resilience of its residents." --Joanna Scott
"Tom Piazza's City of Refuge is a great read--sweeping and intimate, elegiac and angry, serving as lyrical witness to the destruction and recovery of a great city." --Jess Walter
"Like the city he writes about, Tom Piazza's new book is beautiful, harrowing, compassionate, and complex. City of Refuge does what all great American novels must do: it gives voice to the voiceless and remembers the stories the politicians want us to forget. The future of American fiction--and perhaps America--depends on novelists who can tell us stories like this." --Dean Bakopoulos
The Story Behind City of Refuge, by Tom Piazza
City of Refuge pretty much insisted on being written. I didnt sit down one day and think, "How can I write a novel about Hurricane Katrina?" In some ways, it was the last thing I wanted to do.
Immediately after Katrina, in September 2005, while my partner Mary and I were evacuated to Missouri from our home in New Orleans, I began writing my short book Why New Orleans Matters. It was completed in five weeks, and HarperCollins published it that November. After it was published, I found that I had turned into a kind of spokesman for New Orleans recovery; I crisscrossed the country for months, speaking at colleges, doing television and radio interviews, all of that. I was proud to do it, and I considered it a privilege.
But by the spring of 2006 I was a little burned out on speaking about New Orleans. I needed time to process my own emotional trauma from the storm. Sometime that March, Sweet Briar College in Virginia invited me to visit and do a fiction workshop and a public talk on New Orleans. Along with that engagement came a gift: two weeks residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts--time to mend, reflect, and think about what life might look like after this disaster. Friends had died, friends had lost everything, Marys house had been flooded, the house I rented had been damaged and was unlivable for six months. There was a lot to think about, a lot to reckon with.
Then something strange happened. On my way to Virginia, the characters in City of Refuge began appearing in my mind with an almost hallucinatory immediacy. I could see them--Lucy, SJ, Craig and Annie and Alice, Wesley--with an eerie clarity. SJ, a carpenter in the Lower Ninth Ward, working on his house on a hot August afternoon, Craig, a Midwestern transplant to New Orleans, taking his seven year-old daughter Annie to a street parade, SJs sister Lucy waking up at an evacuee camp in Missouri and not knowing where she was .. I could see them all, hear them all, and everything I was seeing and hearing felt urgent and important.
In nine days at Virginia Center I wrote ten thousand words about these characters, as well as a complete synopsis of what happened to them, starting about a week before Katrina and ending right around Mardi Gras six months later. I have never had a writing experience like that, and I wont count on having another one like it anytime soon. It was like having a high fever.
That fever lasted for the nearly two years it took me to write City of Refuge. I wrote it at my home in New Orleans--damaged, resilient, depressed, inspiring, unbearably hot New Orleans--as well as at arts colonies like Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and Virginia Center, and various other places in Virginia, Missouri, and Cape Cod. I did a lot of driving while I was writing this book. In the course of that time, my landlord decided to sell the house where I had been living (I ended up buying it myself three months into the writing of the novel, a process Id just as soon never go through again), I broke my ankle and spent two months on crutches, several friends in New Orleans committed suicide, and one of my oldest and dearest friends died just as I finished the first draft.
Through all of this, these characters kept insisting on coming to the page; they forced me to listen to what they had to say, and to feel what they were feeling. Nothing has ever felt so important to me. Craig and Alice, their friends Bobby and Jen, SJ and Lucy and Wesley and SJs cousin Aaron and his wife Dot, and Dots cousin Leeshawn who brings SJ back to life after all he went through .. these characters became as real to me as anyone I have ever known in life. I hope they become just as real for anyone who reads City of Refuge.
What happened in New Orleans, and for all the New Orleans people scattered around the country because of the disaster, is, on one level, particular to New Orleans. But on another level it is an anthology of universal experience--exile, family separation and reunion, the loss and reclaiming of home, the yearning for community, the need for love. The disaster affected not just New Orleanians but the entire nation, and will continue to do so for a long time. If my book helps people understand, empathize, and share some of that experience as if it were their own, then I will feel that I have done something good with my work.
From Publishers Weekly
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Top Customer Reviews
Like most of those posting here, I did not experience Hurricane Katrina firsthand. I watched the coverage on CNN, horrified by the scenes of devastation and human suffering that unfolded before my eyes. I tried to imagine what it had to be like for those who found themselves trapped in their attics or on their roofs. I cried for those lost. And I raged against an administration that would treat this catastrophe with such disregard. This is America, I thought as I watched displaced residents begging for food and help from anyone who could give it to them. Why is my government not there to help them, I cried?
'City of Refuge' brought it all back and more. Not only is the story of actual flood survivors brilliantly depicted, the author has also given us a glimpse into the lives of those displaced by the storm - lucky enough not to lose everything, but still placed in a difficult situation. The juxtaposition of the two stories emphasizes how different life can be for the "haves" and the "have nots."
I really enjoyed the author's detailed descriptions of New Orleans - before and after. However, words really cannot convey the scope of the devastation, and I found myself researching locations noted in the book to see exactly how they were impacted by the storm. What I found gave further meaning to the book.
Check out Google maps and search for any one of the streets in the character SJ's neighborhood (Tennessee St. is a good place to start). Google maps satellite view shows the area after the storm, before any demolition occurred.Read more ›
While it was just a few years ago, I had forgotten just how angry the government's fumbling response to the disaster made me. So it's much to Piazza's credit that he wrote the book, because it all deserves to be remembered. The story and its main characters are fictional, but the sights, smells and sounds of New Orleans are delightfully real before the flood and horrifyingly so afterward. Like one of the many delta blues and R&B musicians he name-checks throughout the book, Piazza names names of those responsible - Bush, Chertoff, "Heckuva Job Brownie" - and doesn't mince words regarding what they did and didn't do. (He does invent a fictional talk-radio host as a stand-in for the real ones who offended nearly everyone with their views on the victims - fair enough.)
Against that backdrop, the terrifying experiences of the refugees that we all saw unfolding on television are humanized vividly through the two families. From the calm before the storm to the very point of no return, in New Orleans and on the road and from a safe distance, through the eyes of the victims and those near and far who helped them, and back to the shattered streets afterward, it's all expertly depicted and unflinching. It's not always easy to read, and it shouldn't be, in light of what really happened. But it's definitely a story we should all remember.
The experiences of SJ's family are the more gripping and better realized. Inherently this is because SJ's whole family's history and being is interwoven with his family's life in the lower lower 9th , where: "You had a place, a role to fill, a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself, a community." Both emotionally and physically they have much more to lose. In contrast the Donaldson are of the class and mindset where: "The badge of honor is being able to ride above the discomfort, arranging things so that you and your family are not sweating it out in the grease pit with everyone else." Inherently you feel the smallness of the Donaldson's problems compared to SJs making his families troubles all the more poignant. Overall this is a thoughtful examination of class, race, family and community in New Orleans through the lens of the Katrina experience.
About the Author: Award winning author Tom Piazza is himself a New Orleans resident and jazz writer; he was displaced by Katrina, eventually returning to the city and writing the non fiction work Why New Orleans Matters which discusses the cultural importance of restoring New Orleans. This book effectively makes the same argument in fictional though semi-autobiographic form.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This Katrina story gave a very insightful account from two very different family's experiences. As a Katrina survivor, I could identify closely with the journalist's experience... Read morePublished 4 months ago by Jeannine Gaster
Really enjoyed this book. If you need a good cry, this is it! Quick read.Published 6 months ago by Jill Barbour
As a cultural Acadian/Cajun/Creole, New Orleans has been a cultural "Mecca" for me for life. We first visited in 2001 & I had found the place that despite not being from there, is... Read morePublished 11 months ago by John A. Brissette
This novel tells the story of Katrina and the aftermath through the eyes of two families. I could not put it down. Read morePublished on January 14, 2014 by Daniel Goodemote
This is my second review of Tom Piazza's novel. The first was written halfway through when I stumbled on a plot point that wasn't realistic. Read morePublished on September 7, 2013 by Shane Finkelstein
This book really made me appreciate what had happened during Katrina and the the aftermath. I bought this book well over a year ago and the story still sticks with me.Published on July 11, 2013 by 5TAL55
Like most of those posting here, I did not experience Hurricane Katrina firsthand. I watched the coverage on CNN, I really enjoyed the author's detailed descriptions of New Orleans... Read morePublished on July 12, 2012 by damarisg33