An Underlying Sadness: Mary C. Johansen on City of Refuge by Tom Piazza

City of Refuge, Tom Piazza, Harper


The two families at the heart of Tom Piazza’s novel, City of Refuge, reflect the racial and economic diversity of most American cities. What separates them from other Americans is the city they live in. New Orleans, in all its beauty—and devastation after Hurricane Katrina struck—is the soul of the story. Anyone who has read Why New Orleans Matters, a book length essay that Tom Piazza wrote a few months after the hurricane, knows that Piazza loves the Big Easy. Although his love is not blind, it is in evidence from the first pages of City of Refuge, which describe a spontaneous parade marching through the Lower Ninth Ward, to the last pages depicting the first straggly Mardi Gras celebrated after the levees broke and the city was flooded. In comparison to the detail and emotional tenor that Tom Piazza gives to New Orleans in the novel, the story of the Williams’ and Donaldson’s and their separate sagas before, during and after the storm seems almost incidental.

The story begins on the Friday before the hurricane hit. We first meet SJ Williams, a black, working class carpenter living in the Lower Ninth Ward; his sister Lucy, an on-again, off-again drug user and Lucy’s son, Wesley who is on the brink of becoming a criminal. We catch a glimpse the of Williams’s life during the weekend that precedes the storm. It is a fairly typical life, touched by drugs and crime, of many in the poorer areas of the city.

Craig Donaldson lives in a leafy suburb near the Tulane University campus with his wife, Alice and their two young children, Annie and Malcolm. He is the editor of Gumbo, an alternative city newspaper, and he makes enough money for Alice to be a stay-at-home mom. Craig and Alice are planning Malcolm’s birthday party when we meet them. Alice is the epitome of white middle class urban angst. She complains about raising her children in the heart of New Orleans. The school system is hobbled by crumbling buildings and lack of adequate funding. The whole city is hobbled by an antiquated infrastructure. Crime is rampant. Craig, originally from the mid West, is passionate about New Orleans, its culture, its music, its food. The last thing on his mind is leaving. Yet, Alice’s discomfort is an almost constant background noise in their marriage. And in the background of these first chapters, like white noise, are the weather reports which become more and more dire as the weekend wears on.

Hurricane Katrina seems like it will pose no more of a problem than some of the bigger hurricanes that have struck New Orleans in the recent past—some flooding, loss of electricity, damaged homes and a few days of disruption in normal activity. But, as the storm gathers strength during the weekend, evacuation becomes less and less of an option and more of a necessity. Unfortunately, evacuation is feasible only for those who have both the financial resources and a car. Craig and Alice wait until it becomes clear that the storm will cause major damage before they evacuate with tens of thousands of others. The Donaldson’s can’t.

What follows are the divergent paths that each family takes in order to regain some semblance of normalcy. Craig and his family endure ten hours of traffic jams only to find gasoline supplies drying up along the major routes and motels hopelessly overcrowded. They end up in Elkton, a suburb of Chicago, staying with Alice’s aunt and uncle. A far worse fate befalls SJ and his family. They experience Hurricane Katrina in all its wrath. The major breach of the levees occurred along the Lower Ninth Ward. Over ten feet of water flooded SJ’s house. Like so many other nameless heroes, SJ spends the day after the storm rescuing people who are trapped in a river filled with dangerous debris. His family is scattered after the hurricane. Wesley ends up in Albany, a place that might as well be another planet to him, with a couple of empty nesters who have volunteered to take displaced hurricane victims in. Wesley’s attempt to understand and communicate with the elderly couple creates the most emotionally charged interactions of the book. In comparison, the description of Lucy’s stay in one of many camps set up by volunteer organizations is stilted. SJ finds himself in Houston staying with his cousins, in shock and suffering from severe depression. The family is reunited in the suburbs of Houston feeling out-of-place and lonely in this land of cars and malls.

As each family grapples with long-term relocation and whether to return to the crippled city, we learn, through Craig’s and SJ’s trips back to New Orleans, of the damage that brought the city to its knees. Piazza’s prose comes alive in his descriptions of the horror and devastation in the city he loves. The work “toxic” appears routinely. The devastated city is a place of sour smells, sickening mold growing profusely on indoor walls, decaying bodies and a brownish sludge that covers everything the flood waters touched.

As everyone begins to adapt to their new lives, there is an underlying sadness in the realization that many families will not return to New Orleans, and those that do return will find a city that remains dysfunctional in so many ways. Tom Piazza has written a touching narrative steeped in the history of what has to be some of the darkest days America will ever encounter. It is fitting that we are left wondering whether the Williams’ and the Donaldson’s will find happiness in their new lives. After all, three years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans still remains on it knees. And the rest of the world is wondering too.