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.