Merrimon Book Reviews

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City of Refuge

by Tom Piazza

An unexpected treasure!

In CITY OF REFUGE, Tom Piazza gives readers an inside view of two families, one black and one white, from the preparations for the approach of Hurricane Katrina through evacuations to Houston and Chicago and their return back to a beloved city. SJ Williams, a carpenter and widower, takes pride in his home in the Lower Ninth, a place where his father before him had built his own house upon returning from World War II. SJ's nineteen year old nephew, Wesley has the youthful attitude, difficulties and culture of the newer face of the Lower Ninth population, a generation that derives their understanding of identity not so much from themselves but from how others treat them. Even before the disaster, New Orleans itself is the center of struggle within the marriage of Craig Donaldson and his wife Alice. With his love for jazz, Craig has found a refuge in New Orleans, a place where he feels at home. As Alice has become a mother, the city's charm now seems faint as crime, the school system and other urban problems threaten her vision of family. Tom Piazza follows these two families through the preparations, Hurricane Katrina herself, the more devastating flooding from the failed levees to the aftermath and the rebuilding of lives.

Against the voice backdrop of weather forecasting, politicians and talk radio, Tom Piazza gives the reader a more intimate perspective through which to view New Orleans. CITY OF REFUGE paints a portrait of two families tied to New Orleans, the Williamses by its family's connection to the place through history and geography and the Donaldsons as outsiders whose hearts were drawn to the unique cultural legacy of this American city. At first, the reader, now familiar with Katrina from countless news feeds, feels the disconnect between what we know now and the reality faced by families in New Orleans at the time. This disconnect increases as the storm and flooding cut New Orleans off from communication systems and the country itself. As Tom Piazza takes the reader deeper and deeper into the lives of his characters and their experiences, the reader feels a shift. As we become insiders into the lives of not only the evacuees but also those who offer assistance, the reader feels the disconnect of the news and politicians from the lives of individual Americans and families. Juxtaposed to the disconnected partisan politics of blame, the reader sees the intimate moments, even in something so simple as a smile, that unite people, one person to another. CITY OF REFUGE paints a portrait of one specific place, New Orleans and its people as displaced evacuees, with all the unique threads that create its individual flavor, and yet at the same time through his individual characters and their evacuation, Tom Piazza allows the reader to see those things that bind us together as Americans.

Like John Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH, Tom Piazza tells a gut-wrenching story of families struggling to cope with a difficult moment in American history. CITY OF REFUGE makes vivid some of the horrifying details of the city's flooding. The New Orleans story feels more personal and more connected to the ground zero lives of families than the picture painted by those living outside. Geography, history and the unique voices of New Orleans combine to tell a story deeply tied to its location. CITY OF REFUGE inspires both a sense of moral outrage as the reader hears the voices of those seeking to profit or refuse responsibility from the natural and man-made disaster. Tom Piazza, however, takes the reader beyond politics and beyond race to a vision of New Orleans and indeed America that both celebrates the individual and the spirit within individuals. Through Wesley's experiences I was brought close to tears as Tom Piazza gives a vision of the values and ties that can bind very different individuals together in ways that transform lives. Although the Donaldsons and Williamses have very different experiences, ones that often made me cringe at the differences, Tom Piazza also succeeds in unveiling those struggles and values that unite the two families. By the end of the novel, I felt a renewed sense of hope. CITY OF REFUGE is a classic, a book to be read centuries from now for both its unique vision of a cultural treasure and its embodiment of the American spirit in the families and those relief workers near and far who touched the lives of those families. Ultimately, Tom Piazza leaves the reader with an insight into New Orleans both deeply personal and also transcendent. Though not always an easy read (I myself experienced a flood quite devastating but minute in its neighborhood scope and the book brought make vivid, painful memories I thought forgotten), CITY OF REFUGE is one of those rewarding books that will remain with me for many years to come, one that takes an event of my own life time, one particular moment in history, and through fiction portrays a depth and richness of spirit emerging in the hearts of the characters in one beautiful final image.

I chose to read this book because my mother lived in New Orleans for several years and New Orleans fills the stories of her youth. What I got was an American classic likely to be read by generations long after its publication. Why? This book does something politics and the news can rarely do. It reaches deeper. It doesn't ignore politics but the politics are reduced to background noise in a very dynamic story. Neither national nor local politicians (and neither party) are spared from responsibility from the disconnect of their dismissal of the realities. The book does not dismiss race but also, I believe it goes beyond the separation into little fragments of people who cannot relate. It also takes New Orleans itself and brings together historic New Orleans, new residents and even those far removed from the site but tied through their relief efforts, through a sense of caring and a sense of values born within individual families. To anyone who has themselves lived through a disaster, this book will not be an easy read. CITY OF REFUGE haunts with its vivid portrayal of the sights and smells of mold and mud. If you are looking for a light read, CITY OF REFUGE is probably not the best choice. On the other hand, if you are looking for one of those books that is both gut-wrenching but also inspiring, one that takes you beyond your own familiar world, CITY OF REFUGE is a book beyond politics and slogans and divides --- a book timeless in its ability to go right to the heart of certain values that have filled the lives of individuals throughout our history.

Publisher: Harper (August 2008)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
Review Courtesy of Amazon Vine
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