by KATHARINE COLDIRON
Sarah M. Broom, The Yellow House (Grove Atlantic, 2019), pp. 384
This review originally appeared in the Fall 2019 print issue of Carolina Quarterly.
The story of a place is the story of its context, and that context can be extremely complicated. Sarah M. Broom understands this as few writers do. Her staggering nonfiction debut, The Yellow House, builds context, slowly and surely, until Hurricane Katrina destroys the house where she grew up at the midpoint of the narrative. By then, the context Broom has been building can do a miraculous amount of narrative weightlifting on its own; the reader now knows that the Yellow House was never a masterpiece, but that it stood up despite all odds, and that twelve siblings have passed through the house on their way to adulthood. The reader has learned from Broom that New Orleans East has a checkered history in terms of zoning and development, and comprehends that Katrina could—probably will—create an opportunity for more predation on its citizens. The reader can draw these conclusions because Broom has spooled out a lifetime’s worth of research before she gets to the major trauma of the book, of the city, of the house.
Perhaps it’s natural that the book becomes significantly more compelling after the storm hits. The second half of The Yellow House moves much quicker than the first half, which delineates Broom’s complex family story (her parents merged two families; decades lie between Broom and her siblings) and some of the history of land use in New Orleans East, which, for those who don’t know the city well, includes the Ninth Ward. The first half also offers a kind of dress rehearsal of Katrina, in narrating Broom’s family’s experience with Hurricane Betsy in 1965 (long before Broom was born):
“Later, it was said that the water rose twenty feet in fifteen minutes.
There was no attic to climb up into, no way to sit above it all to wait it out. When Uncle Joe opened the front door, water bum-rushed him. Deborah panicked: ‘We gon die, we gon die.'”
Finally, it builds psychological groundwork for this rundown shotgun house in New Orleans East as greater, more significant than its practical definition. As Gaston Bachelard has posited in The Poetics of Space, and Broom further explains, a house is never just a house: “There was the house we lived in and the house we thought we should live in. There was the house we thought we should live in and the house other people thought we lived in. These houses were colliding. And the actual house?”
Broom’s writing throughout The Yellow House is intelligent and extraordinarily thoughtful. She moves gracefully between multiple registers in a given chapter and demonstrates a remarkably mature talent for book-length nonfiction. But the stakes of family life and midcentury land use just can’t generate as much momentum as what happens in New Orleans in August of 2005. At that point, the narrative breaks into shards, and each chapter indicates the places from which multiple stories are told, rather than, as another book might, their narrators. That is, “Run,” the first chapter of the book section about Katrina, is subtitled “Harlem–New Orleans–Missouri–Ozark, Alabama.” “Survive,” the second chapter, includes interspliced fragments that name each family member whose experience of the storm Broom then narrates, some of which are harrowing indeed. The book speaks in a spectrum of dialects, often placing them right next to each other.
Imagine this being all that you can do. It is as paltry as it sounds.
We knew they was coming but you go to getting mad anyway.
Across the book, the reader aches for Broom to get to the point, get to the hurricane, and then profoundly regrets that wish. Katrina is a grandly terrible story, quilted from tens of thousands of smaller terrible stories, and what Broom’s family went through exemplifies that terror. Other books about the storm (Salvage the Bones, Blood Dazzler) do the job quicker, surrounding the tale with softer layers of art, but Broom strips back all comfort and all mercy in narrating her family’s experiences, leaving nothing out. And she does not stop. She explains the consequences of the storm two years out, five years out, ten years out, after her family scatters across the country and yet resists settling down. She narrates a half-year she herself spent in Burundi, which the State Department classifies as a level three travel risk (four is highest): “My time in Burundi had helped me place New Orleans in a more global context…But the distance only clarified; it could not induce forgetting.” She returns directly to her home city, where she tries to work for Ray Nagin post-Katrina, which goes about as well as it seems like it would.
Never once does Broom lose sight of the Yellow House as both primary subject and primary metaphor of the book: “I did want the Yellow House gone, but mostly from mind, wanted to be free from its lock and chain of memory, but did not, could not, foresee water bum-rushing it.” She maintains control on this story as a personal one, while holding the reins on the broader trends and consequences borne out by her family’s individual experiences, as well.
Because the book contains significant measures of art and research and memory and language and cultural awareness and philosophic contemplation, it’s difficult to classify. To say it’s a memoir is incorrect, because it’s thicker and richer than that, more driven by a city’s or a house’s perspective than an individual’s. To call it commercial nonfiction is also wrong, because it’s a deeply personal book, revealing and vulnerable, choppier than the average hardback bestseller and shaped more strangely. But, without a doubt, it is a stunning achievement. The Yellow House is an indispensable book about one of the most important events of the early 21st century, an account that places the crisis of Katrina at eye level even as it gazes at the horizon.