City of Refuge – Book Review

CityOfRefuge Every year as August wanes and the school year looms, New Orleans can expect to see at least one or two storms. They are as much a part of the calendar as Thanksgiving or Easter. Many people who can leave town do so, driving to Baton Rouge, or Lafayette, or Jackson or Houston, just in case the weather does enough damage to pull down the electrical grid for a couple of days. Many others choose to stay. – from City of Refuge, page 27 –

SJ Williams lives in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. He shares his life with his nephew Wesley and sister Lucy while still grieving for the loss of his wife Rosetta. SJ is a carpenter and takes pride in his home and community – a vibrant neighborhood where everyone knows everyone; where neighbors help neighbors.

He loved living in the Lower Ninth Ward. Its rhythm was his rhythm, despite the danger, the violence. It was their place; it belonged to the people in the Ninth Ward and they knew it and they managed as they could, and they were proud to have made lives there. No one had ever promised them, of all people, that life was going to be easy or without daily struggle, and there, at least, they took pride that it was their own struggle. And unlike in some other parts of town, there weren’t a lot of people from outside coming through to bother them. SJ had built part of it, just like his father and grandfather, and it had made him who and what he was, and it had made his parents and almost everyone he knew. – from City of Refuge, page 12 –

Craig Donaldson has moved to New Orleans from the Midwest and has settled with his wife and two young children in a desirable neighborhood. Craig works as an editor for an alternative newspaper. On the surface he seems to have it all – but there are deep cracks in his marriage to Alice who wants to leave New Orleans and return to her Midwestern roots; while Craig’s love of New Orleans lies deep within him and the city has come to be a part of who he is.

His self was invested in the city, in its rituals; he read meaning into it and it returned the favor by endowing him with a set of coordinates, a loose confederation of attitudes, and a community of others who operated under the same constellation. It was not a constellation of meaning he’d been born into; it was a refuge he’d found, a world that worked in a way he needed the world to work, a safe harbor to get away from something in himself for which he lacked a name, some emptiness, some longing, some intimation that perhaps he did not really even exist…But what if it wasn’t here anymore? Where, exactly would he be? – from City of Refuge, page 80 –

Different in significant ways, not the least the color of their skin (SJ is black, Craig is white)…the two men’s lives will parallel each other when Katrina – a devastating Category Five hurricane – hits New Orleans. Faced with an uncertain future, both men will have to decide to either stay and rebuild, or leave the city they love.

Tom Piazza’s novel City of Refuge takes a hard and brutally honest look at one of the most shameful natural disasters in American history through the eyes of two compelling characters. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina brushed New Orleans with its lethal strength and contributed to the failure of the old and poorly constructed levee system. City, State and Federal governments were slow to response to the tragedy. The ineptness of the response played out on the national news with horrifying images of refugees dying in the Superdome, Convention Center and on the streets. Piazza reveals the humanity behind the tragedy in his beautifully written novel. Laced with the flavor of New Orleans, City of Refuge transports the reader to the days before the hurricane and the months following. In an interview printed at the end of the novel, Piazza says:

You can’t understand the kind of experience that people in New Orleans went through from an air-conditioned bus. You need to get the mud and the water and the blood all over you. So that was how I approached the material.

Piazza is successful in this effort – the scenes immediately following the disaster, seen through SJ’s eyes, are stunning, sad, and horrible. They also generated a certain amount of renewed rage in me for HOW and WHY the disaster played out as it did.

In the midst of it, with up and right and green and there and down and left and here and red jabbering incoherently, you did what you could until help arrived, whether you led a child by the hand through the ruined streets, or endured the blazing sidewalk heat in the crowd outside the Convention Center, or sat trapped in a wheelchair in your living room, abandoned by the nurse, as the water crept up around your ankles, and then your knees, praying, knowing that God never sent you nothing that you couldn’t handle, so it must have been someone else sent all that water that rose mercilessly past your lips and nose (they found you later, out of your wheelchair, under your refrigerator, which had floated and come to rest on top of you), or squatted with hundreds of others in the red haze of afternoon amid the other garbage by the side of the empty interstate, waiting for a helicopter, or a bus or a truck waiting for passage up and out to some city of refuge waiting on a strange horizon. – from City of Refuge, page 169 –

But City of Refuge is more than just a replaying of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Piazza’s characters are carefully drawn and very human. Their story asks an essential question: What is the definition of home? It is not just a place, but a community, one’s family, and sense of belonging that develops because of the spirit of the people who live there. Many people have wondered: why rebuild New Orleans? And that question is part and parcel of Piazza’s novel. The answer is complex, but Piazza has simplified it. By showing us the people behind the tragedy – their dreams, their families, their hopes for the future – the question turns on itself. Why NOT rebuild?

But New Orleans had been the most lush garden in the world, to him, and now here they were huddled around these few remaining stalks, trying to warm themselves…It was like living in an optical illusion; from one angle the city was a ruined shell of itself, where people hung onto the wreckage for dear life; from another angle it was already coming back, insisting on not dying, full of examples of the human spirit defiantly asserting itself in the face of the worst that life could dish out. – from City of Refuge, page 306 –

Only a few pages into City of Refuge, I knew I would love this book. Piazza’s writing is honest and deeply empathetic. It is not surprising that New Orleans becomes almost another character in the novel … Piazza not only survived Hurricane Katrina, he continues to reside there. Although the book exposes the horror and sadness of the tragedy – and reveals the desperation of the people who were affected – it is not a depressing novel. Rather, it leaves the reader with hope and a glimpse into the enduring spirit of a community.

Highly recommended.


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  1. You have most definitely sold me on this book. It sounds like an amazing read and one that would definitely stay with me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book!

    • Staci on October 18, 2009 at 14:19

    I’m going to my library system immediately to request this one. Sounds like a deeply moving and honest read!! Lovely review!

  2. Wow, another one to add to my wish list! It sounds fantastic, you’re review totally hooked me.

  3. Interesting review. I’m excited to read a fictionalized book about the recent events surrounding the hurricane. I like the idea of pondering what exactly home is. Thanks!

    • Jenners on October 18, 2009 at 17:08

    I think I need to read this book. Hurricane Katrina was an event that I don’t think most people fully understand — and it sounds like he got at the heart of it. I think I’ll add this to my list. Really wonderful review.

    • Wendy on October 18, 2009 at 17:19

    Samantha: It is a powerful read!

    Staci: I hope you’ll love it, as I did!

    Shawnee: Hope you’ll also love it 🙂

    Bookshelf Monstrosity: It is a very well-done book surrounding this historical event…hope you’ll enjoy it.

    Jenners: Thanks – yes, I believe Piazza goes right to the heart of the tragedy…and in doing so gave me a great deal of insight into what happened there.

  4. I already had this one on my wishlist, but after seeing your five stars I think I’m going to have to get a copy.

  5. Great review, Wendy. I’ve been through several major hurricanes and I can tell you that, IMO, the best part of Piazza’s work was the part describing what happened before the storm actually hit. That feeling of “stay or run” that we always get is captured perfectly, as is the doubt that comes soon after we realize we’ve now waited to long to leave. This is an excellent book.

  6. I’d heard of this book but wasn’t sure if I would like it. I just put it on my Paperback Swap wish list and can’t wait to read it. Thanks.

  7. This book was pretty amazing, wasn’t it? I’m thrilled to see how much you enjoyed it – it will definitely go on my favorites list from this year. Great review as well, you explained so perfectly everything I enjoyed about the novel. 🙂

    • kailana on October 19, 2009 at 19:48

    I have been hearing good things about this book! I will probably end up reading it one of these days. 🙂

  8. I’ve not heard of this book, and might not have thought to read it except for your review. The power of place is compelling, and as one who has deep connections to my own home, I think I would find this book riveting.

    Wondeful review, as always. Thanks for the recommendation!

  9. I’ve seen quite a few reviews of books dealing with the aftermath of Katrina…I hope that no one forgets that the rebuilding is still ongoing and these people are in need of help.

    great review.

    • Wendy on October 23, 2009 at 13:56

    Jackie: I hope you’ll love the book as I did.

    Sam: Thanks! Yes, I think the suspense and the struggle to decide whether or not to leave was done so well in the book. For people who do not face hurricanes every year, I think the book was eye opening as to why someone might stay.

    Margaret: Hope you’ll enjoy the read when you get it…it is really a well written novel.

    Heather: yes, it was an amazing read…glad we agree!!!

    Kailana: I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts once you’ve read it!

    RR: Thank you! I loved the theme of what makes a place home…I could tell Piazza has a lot of passion for New Orleans…he captured place wonderfully in this novel.

    Serena: You are so right – things are still unsettle there, and the rebuilding is still going on. There are many people who still do not have homes there.

    • Teddy on October 23, 2009 at 22:07

    You just added yet another book to my TBR Wendy. Now cut that out. LOL! It sounds wonderful.

    • Wendy on October 25, 2009 at 12:10

    Teddy: LOL – happy to enable you 🙂

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