Grove Atlantic, 2019. $26, 384 pages.
IN A RECENT New York Times podcast interview, Sarah Broom reflected that in the era of climate upheaval, we’re all living with an inheritance of “soft ground.” Centered on the story of her mother’s camelback shotgun house in New Orleans East and its destruction by Hurricane Katrina, Broom’s new memoir The Yellow House is a meditation on family and loss that will speak powerfully to anyone who loves a place and seeks a stable foothold in our time of crisis and change.
In 1961, Broom’s mother Ivory Mae — newly widowed at nineteen — gathers her savings and buys the house at 4121 Wilson Avenue, her bid for what seems at first like the American Dream. New Orleans East, then in development and far from the tourist meccas of the Garden District and the French Quarter, isn’t even pictured on most city maps, its ground reclaimed from cypress swamp. The neighborhood nevertheless promises security in its planned community and the nearby jobs at NASA or the oil refinery. And Ivory Mae seizes the opportunity, remarrying and raising a blended family of twelve children in this home. Broom — the youngest of the twelve — grows up in a close-knit clan of siblings and neighbors, with pecan trees and bad dogs and stern big brothers as the constellations in her childhood sky.
Yet the fault lines are already showing: The ground underfoot always threatens to sink. A new highway bisects the neighborhood, cutting Broom and her siblings off from their school and catching Broom’s sister Karen in a near-fatal traffic accident. Broom’s brother Darryl slips into addiction. Ivory Mae, whose yearning for order and elegance weaves a bright sad line through the book, finds the house’s maintenance slipping out of her control: decorating with handmade curtains and the yellow siding that gives the house its name, yet she resorts to patching under-cabinet holes with aluminum foil. But the storm clouds of geography and money are gathering; when Katrina hits, the family scatters and the yellow house is destroyed, shaping the book’s poignant opening image: Broom’s older brother Carl, self-appointed guardian of the ruined lot, sitting in a lawn chair to guard what’s left of home.
The Yellow House testifies to the power of ferocious, omnivorous research and self-examination — with emotion pooling, swirling, returning, and settling like water — to set readers, as onetime New Orleans resident William Faulkner once said, in the heart in conflict with itself. Personally and civically, the situation often looks impossible. Working in the office of Mayor Ray Nagin, Broom sees the temperamental eruptions and flippant evasions that create a leadership vacuum in the post-Katrina city, the tourist economy that sustains and cannibalizes it, a collective mind shaped by casual violence, “Katrina craziness,” and a deep comfort with mortality and mystery, as well as bureaucratic ironies like that by which she’s ultimately dispossessed the notice of the yellow house’s impending demolition arrives in its mailbox where no one will ever be home again. The Yellow House enters the heart of a city we think we know to show us how the hopes of its residents — especially the historically dispossessed — the profit motive of developers, and the reality of marsh geography coincide. Like Elizabeth Rush’s Rising or Salvatore Settis’s If Venice Dies, this book will make readers reflect on the fate of cities linked, historically and spiritually, to the water that bears economic opportunity and impending doom.
For me, a fellow Southerner-in-exile, Broom’s lingering guilt and compulsion to return resonate—so does the way that she’s always obsessed with the house, always keeping notes on something about to be lost, wrestling in advance with solastalgia and grief. “Absences allow us one power over them,” she writes. “They do not speak a word. We say of them what we want. Still, they hover, pointing fingers at our backs. No place to go now but into deep ground.” With Sarah Broom as your guide, this is a journey you’ll be glad you made.