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City of Refuge: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 19, 2008

4.3 out of 5 stars 82 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

Editorial Reviews

"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 hurricane’s 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 didn’t 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, Mary’s 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, SJ’s 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 won’t 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 I’d 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 SJ’s cousin Aaron and his wife Dot, and Dot’s 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

A passionate ode to the Big Easy's cracked bowl, the latest from Piazza (Why New Orleans Matters) offers two alternating perspectives on Katrina and its aftermath. For Craig Donaldson—a white Michigan transplant who edits local culture organ Gumbo, who has a tidy house near Tulane University and whose two-child marriage appears headed for divorce—Katrina becomes a pressure valve for his own stifled emotions, as Craig rants about the despicable lies of George Bush, the man-made nature of the Katrina disaster, and his own marriage. Much more effective are sections that focus on SJ, a black Vietnam vet and widower from the Lower Ninth Ward, who is taking care of his invalid sister, Lucy, as the hurricane strikes. Craig's and SJ's approaches to evacuation couldn't differ more, and while their competing narratives occasionally illustrate the city's race and class divide a little too schematically, the point that thousands were left to rot is brought home with kinetic intensity. In stark contrast to Craig's bluster—and to some of the stereotypes handed to Lucy's character—SJ's methodical approach to the disaster and his ability to rebound from devastating loss speak volumes. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (August 19, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061238619
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061238611
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #687,994 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Marilyn Dalrymple VINE VOICE on August 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
After reading the other reviews, which are mostly positive, I feel I must be missing something. Piazza has won numerous awards for his writing - he is an accomplished author, no doubt. And most who have read it seem impressed by City of Refuge.

However, I had to force myself to finish this novel. The story is told to the reader and that is what leaves me cold and uninvolved. I couldn't get into the characters heads, no matter how hard I tried. Instead of being with the characters and being able to get inside their skin, I was a bystander watching from afar.

Portions of the writing are lyrical and well done, but most of the novel is like reading a newspaper report. The book left me cold. I'm sorry to say this because I understand the devastation of Katrina, and I can only imagine the difficulties those who lived in the destroyed area had to contend with.

There is such opportunity for a strong, moving and epic-like story to be told that it seems it would be difficult to miss it. But, unfortunately, this novel does miss the opportunity in my mind. But then, I'm only one person.
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It's been a week since I finished 'City of Refuge' and I am still thinking about the characters and their experiences. For me, this is the mark of a truly memorable reading experience - rare in this day of disposable fiction.

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.
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A chance meeting on a festive afternoon between two families, one black and one white, kicks off this tale. It's a simple, yet wonderfully effective look at what makes New Orleans great and what was lost in the flood. There are surely as many different stories of what Katrina meant (and still means) as there were victims of the storm, but the two families and their friends as created by Piazza make for a memorable allegory for the sad reality the world watched unfold a few years ago.

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.
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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 where I was from. My culture, my connection, my NOLA. The events of Hurricane Katrina were life altering for me. Like watching a beloved Aunt injured & dying on CNN, and being powerless to help, I remember those days of grief, anger, uncertainty. Several years ago we finally returned to New Orleans & restarted our tradition of annual visits. I began to close the loop of grief & fear katrina opened. Then, living in New York (Hoboken, NJ) hurricane sandy happened. The loop fully closed. I experienced my "Katrina". I now physically understood all that my New Orleanian brothers and sisters had. Suddenly my connection to the Crescent City was stronger than ever. This book conveys much of my experience & those of the city I love. Thank you so much for writing it. It is as if the words poured forth from my own heart.
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