City of Refuge: A Novel

City of Refuge: A Novel

4.6 9
by Tom Piazza
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

In the heat of late summer, two New Orleans families—one black and one white—confront a storm that will change the course of their lives.

SJ Williams, a carpenter and widower, lives and works in the Lower Ninth Ward, the community where he was born and raised. His sister, Lucy, is a soulful mess, and SJ has been trying to

Overview

In the heat of late summer, two New Orleans families—one black and one white—confront a storm that will change the course of their lives.

SJ Williams, a carpenter and widower, lives and works in the Lower Ninth Ward, the community where he was born and raised. His sister, Lucy, is a soulful mess, and SJ has been trying to keep her son, Wesley, out of trouble. Across town, Craig Donaldson, a Midwestern transplant and the editor of the city's alternative paper, faces deepening cracks in his own family. New Orleans' music and culture have been Craig's passion, but his wife, Alice, has never felt comfortable in the city. The arrival of their two children has inflamed their arguments about the wisdom of raising a family there.

When the news comes of a gathering hurricane—named Katrina—the two families make their own very different plans to weather the storm. The Donaldsons join the long evacuation convoy north, across Lake Pontchartrain and out of the city. SJ boards up his windows and brings Lucy to his house, where they wait it out together, while Wesley stays with a friend in another part of town.

But the long night of wind and rain is only the beginning—and when the levees give way and the flood waters come, the fate of each family changes forever. The Williamses are scattered—first to the Convention Center and the sweltering Superdome, and then far beyond city and state lines, where they struggle to reconnect with one another. The Donaldsons, stranded and anxious themselves, find shelter first in Mississippi, then in Chicago, as Craig faces an impossible choice between the city he loves and the family he had hoped to raise there.

Ranging from the lush neighborhoods of New Orleans to Texas, Missouri, Chicago, and beyond, City of Refuge is a modern masterpiece—a panoramic novel of family and community, trial and resilience, told with passion, wisdom, and a deep understanding of American life in our time.

Editorial Reviews

Kevin Allman
Craig and SJ, different as they are, have one thing in common: They're stuck in place, unable to move on from New Orleans, unable to move back. For them, Chicago and Houston are mental dislocations as much as physical ones. That feeling of rootlessness is the central theme of City of Refuge, and for anyone whose life has been upended by natural disaster, the novel's sense of being out of place will resonate just as loudly as it did in Why New Orleans Matters. Explaining this city's inexorable, gravitational pull to outsiders who see only corruption, crime, poverty and malarial weather is a tough order, but every page of Piazza's deeply felt story explains a larger truth about why people live where they do: because it's home, and heart.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

A passionate ode to the Big Easy's "cracked bowl," the latest from Piazza (Why New Orleans Matters) offers two alternating perspectives on Katrina and its aftermath. For Craig Donaldson-a white Michigan transplant who edits local culture organ Gumbo, who has a tidy house near Tulane University and whose two-child marriage appears "headed for divorce"-Katrina becomes a pressure valve for his own stifled emotions, as Craig rants about the "despicable" lies of George Bush, the "man-made" nature of the Katrina disaster, and his own marriage. Much more effective are sections that focus on SJ, a black Vietnam vet and widower from the Lower Ninth Ward, who is taking care of his invalid sister, Lucy, as the hurricane strikes. Craig's and SJ's approaches to evacuation couldn't differ more, and while their competing narratives occasionally illustrate the city's race and class divide a little too schematically, the point that thousands were left to rot is brought home with kinetic intensity. In stark contrast to Craig's bluster-and to some of the stereotypes handed to Lucy's character-SJ's methodical approach to the disaster and his ability to rebound from devastating loss speak volumes. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, setting off a catastrophe of flooding, panic, and death on a scale never before been seen in the United States. Piazza (Why New Orleans Matters) recaptures the devastation of that storm and its aftermath through the stories of two families-one black, one white-who are driven from their homes by floodwaters and spend days as evacuees in shelters and on the road, finally ending up in Houston and Chicago, where they try to piece together temporary lives while waiting to see what the future holds. Through the Donaldson and Williams families-their memories, their longings, their determination-Piazza paints a beautiful portrait of the Crescent City, as indefatigable in spirit as its citizens. This emotional novel reads like a memoir, teeming with fear, anger, pathos, hope, determination, and love. It is absolutely essential reading for every American who watched and prayed through those terrible days. Highly recommended for all fiction collections. [This book was just picked for the One Book, One New Orleans program.-Ed.]
—Thomas L. Kilpatrick

Kirkus Reviews
Piazza follows the cultural history of his adopted city (Why New Orleans Matters, 2005, etc.) with this powerfully empathetic second novel about Katrina's impact in 2005. His focus is two New Orleans families; one white, one black. The white Donaldsons (husband Craig, wife Alice, two small kids) are transplants from the Midwest. Craig, editor of an alternative newsmagazine, loves the city; it is his "refuge." Alice has become disenchanted; this strains their marriage. In the predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward are the Williamses: SJ, his older sister, Lucy, and her 19-year-old son, Wesley. SJ is a third-generation Orleansian with his own carpentry and repair business. A widower, SJ has seldom dated since his wife's death, finding salvation in work. The less disciplined Lucy battles drug and alcohol problems, and is a loving but part-time mother to Wesley. The story chronicles the time before, during and after Katrina. The Donaldsons leave town, endure horrendous traffic and wind up with distant relatives in Chicago; the Williamses stay put. The day after the hurricane SJ finds himself living in a lake; only his second floor is habitable. He commandeers a rowboat, as dead bodies float past him, and rescues neighbors; a Vietnam vet, SJ knows how to tamp down emotions. What pulls the reader in is this struggle with adversity; the sensitively portrayed Donaldsons are necessary for Piazza's balanced, big-picture view, but their suffering is just an itch compared to the travails of the Williamses, and that's a problem. In their confrontations with death, their accidental separation and disorienting relocations (Missouri, upstate New York), SJ, Lucy and Wesley (eventually reunited in Houston)are simply more real. The Donaldsons, after some lucky breaks, make the wrenching decision to stay in Chicago, while New Orleans, though looking post-Katrina like someone who "had had a lobotomy," still has enough spirit to celebrate Mardi Gras. The struggles of the two families depicted are not always well balanced, but Piazza's writing is so fresh and vital readers will feel, all over again, the outrage at the abandonment of this beloved city.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061982811
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
10/06/2009
Sold by:
HARPERCOLLINS
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
432
Sales rank:
16,026
File size:
848 KB

Read an Excerpt

City of Refuge
A Novel


By Tom Piazza
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008

Tom Piazza
All right reserved.


ISBN: 9780061238611


Chapter One

Deep mid-August in the New Orleans heat. Not even much traffic a block away on North Claiborne, a Saturday afternoon, and the sound of SJ's hammer going in the stupefying thick air. SJ was almost finished framing the new shed he was building in his backyard. Wiring and Sheetrocking would be for after Labor Day. Way off in the distance, past the Industrial Canal and the reaches of the Upper Ninth Ward and the Bywater, the skyscrapers of downtown and the iridescent blister of the Superdome roof lay naked under the brilliant sun.

Out front, SJ's truck and his van sat in the curved cement driveway he had laid in front of his house (he had moved the structure back seven feet to make room for that driveway), with the magnetic sign on the door—New Breed Carpentry and Repair, and his phone number. It had been cheaper than getting it stenciled on the door itself, and it worked fine, he got calls off of it. He had, however, painted his own name in script on the front fender, the way the taxi drivers did, for an extra touch of distinction. Most of his work came from out in New Orleans East, a sprawling area of new houses and curving, landscaped streets in the subdivisions, reclaimed from swampland in the 1970s, where he could certainly have moved, if money were the only question and he had wanted to leave the Lower Ninth, which hedidn't.

SJ's father had built his own house in a vacant lot on North Miro Street, five blocks away, when he came back from World War II, with two-by-fours and weatherboard and nails that he salvaged from all around and saved up by his mama's house. He pulled the nails out of scrap wood, carefully, or found them on the ground, and sometimes even straightened them if they could be straightened, one nail at a time. He kept them in what his mother called put-up jars, sorted roughly by size and thickness and purpose. SJ had kept that old house, although his father was dead and gone, and he rented it out to a widow lady. Sometimes when he wanted to get off by himself he would walk those five blocks to the old house and sit on the side steps and think.

He hammered some finishing nails into a line across the bottom of a small French cornice. He was trying something different with this shed, which he had seen in one of the books his daughter, Camille, sent him from North Carolina, something a little more decorative in a different way, not just utilitarian. His thin, ribbed undershirt, with thin straps over his shoulder, was soaked through with sweat, which glistened on his shaved head, shoulders and upper arms. Around his neck on a thin chain hung a St. Christopher medal. In his mid-fifties, SJ was still a powerful, compact man. He loved to build things, to work with his hands, and he loved to cook, especially outside, and he liked to read. After Rosetta, his wife, had died of an aortic aneurism six years earlier, he had read less and built more.

He would finish the line he was working on and then stop for the day and get some food going. He would go out to find Wesley later if he could; he had left his nephew to finish up a part of the job the day before and Wesley had left the tools sitting outside and SJ had come out in the morning to find them slick with overnight wet. He had wiped them down and put them in the oven to sweat them out, but he didn't understand that carelessness at all. His nephew was a smart young man, nineteen years old and teetering on the edge of some-thing anyone in the Lower Nine knew all too well. Lately he had been riding around at night on these motorcycles where you had to hunch way over, weaving in and out of stopped traffic. Where he got the money for the bike SJ didn't know and Lucy, SJ's sister, would not say. At least, SJ thought, they had the bikes to work on. Working with your hands kept you focused on the real world. Still, you could hit a pothole on of those bikes and end up in a wheelchair for life.

Two weeks earlier the police arrested Wesley for beating on his girlfriend. SJ had drilled into his nephew many times the importance of surviving the encounter with police when you had one. Wesley had a quick mouth and a mannish attitude, but he had done allright, at least he hadn't gotten the police mad, and SJ got the call from the jail at 3:30 in the morning and SJ and Lucy had to go down and get him out on bond and later on SJ had demanded an accounting from his nephew.

"Uncle J she slap me and I didn't hit her. I'm not lying." They were sitting in SJ's living room, the sky just getting light outside. Wesley had on jeans with the crotch halfway down to his knees, and an oversize T-shirt hanging out, and he had taken off his Raiders cap at his uncle's request. His reddish skin seemed to be breaking out, and his hair was uneven and untended. "Then she slap me again and called me a pussy. What I'm supposed to do?"

"Walk out the room, nephew. You already paying for another man's baby. How she going to respect you? You need to find a woman who gonna watch your back and not put a knife in it. It doesn't matter how good that pussy is, you got to stay alive."

Wesley looked up at his uncle then, sly smile, the charming look, "It is good, Uncle J."

SJ allowed himself a small laugh. He knew as well as anyone. He remembered one of the old blues records his father liked to play, something about "Some people say she's no good, but she's allright with me."



Continues...

Excerpted from City of Refuge by Tom Piazza
Copyright © 2008 by Tom Piazza. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Tom Piazza is the author of the novels City of Refuge and My Cold War, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, the essay collection Devil Sent the Rain, and many other works. He was a principal writer for the HBO drama series Treme and the winner of a Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues: A Musical Journey. He lives in New Orleans.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dulcibelle More than 1 year ago
(review of an uncorrected proof)
I loved this book. In telling the story of two families impacted in very different ways by Hurricane Katrina, author Tom Piazza has created something wonderful. His skillful writing makes the reader feel all the emotions that come to play in being forced to leave your home; including the heart wrenching thought that there just might not be anything left to go back to. I know - I live on the Gulf Coast. I wasn't impacted by Katrina, but I did run from Rita, and Piazza has managed to explain exactly what I was feeling on that long drive from home.

Piazza has painted masterful portraits of the people who have moved on from New Orleans and the ones who are going back without taking sides as to which is the best course. In fact, he has shown that, for his characters, each chose the right path for himself and his family.

Piazza allows you to hear the cadence of New Orleans speech without writing in extreme dialects - something that makes reading this book much easier. All in all, this is a wonderful book that would be enjoyed by anyone wanting a story about the resilience of people.

Retrieved from "http://www.librarything.com/wiki/index.php/August_2008_Reviews"
Guest More than 1 year ago
With 1,836 lives lost due to the hurricane and subsequent flooding, Hurricane Katrina was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States and the costliest in terms of property damage. City of Refuge is the story of how the hurricane affects two very different families living in New Orleans. SJ Williams, his sister Lucy and her son Wesley were all born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward. New Orleans is their place and they are proud to have made lives there. The widowed SJ owns his own carpentry and repair business, loves to read and cook while watching over his family. Lucy struggles with drug and alcohol dependence while scraping by working odd jobs where she could find them. Nineteen year old Wesley is at the point in his life where he¿s no longer a boy but not yet a man. He feels smothered by his Uncle SJ¿s subtle pressure to become more than just another thug in the neighborhood. Craig Donaldson is married with two small children. He and his wife Alice are both New Orleans transplants. Nobody had ever had more of a crush on New Orleans than Craig. As editor of Gumbo Magazine he reveled in the rich musical history and the characters found in neighborhoods throughout the city. However more and more lately his wife is feeling a restlessness coming from giving up her own painting and teaching career to the increasing violence and decaying infrastructure of the public school system. Now once again faced with packing up and evacuating the kids Alice is more convinced than ever that it¿s time to leave New Orleans and doesn¿t hesitate to make this clear to Craig. From a few days before the hurricane to first Mardi Gras celebration six months after the devastation Piazza documents the lives of both families with raw emotion and genuine feeling. During the first night of the storm SJ is prowling the house checking rooms sealed up like tombs to the raging outdoors and you can feel the worry coming off the pages. While staying with relatives in Chicago, Alice has made the decision that Craig himself can¿t come to terms with. It¿s time to leave New Orleans and make a new life for their family. You get a true sense of Alice¿s need to protect her family while still feeling the anguish that¿s pulling Craig in two directions. The book is a true homage to the author¿s love of the city and I enjoyed getting to know these characters and be a part of their lives. I would recommend this book to book clubs who will have much to discuss about the book, the city and social differences of the characters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. In telling the story of two families impacted in very different ways by Hurricane Katrina, author Tom Piazza has created something wonderful. His skillful writing makes the reader feel all the emotions that come to play in being forced to leave your home including the heart wrenching thought that there just might not be anything left to go back to. I know - I live on the Gulf Coast. I wasn't impacted by Katrina, but I did run from Rita, and Piazza has managed to explain exactly what I was feeling on that long drive from home. Piazza has painted masterful portraits of the people who have moved on from New Orleans and the ones who are going back without taking sides as to which is the best course. In fact, he has shown, that for his characters, each chose the right path for himself and his family. Piazza allows you to hear the cadence of New Orleans speech without writing in extreme dialects - something that makes reading this book much easier. All in all, this is a wonderful book that would be enjoyed by anyone wanting a story about the resilience of people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago