I have no idea why I reserved this book at the library, and it has taken an inordinate length of time to arrive. As it happens, I read Jacqueline Woodson’s coming-of-age novel Another Brooklyn immediately prior to reading this book. Had The Yellow House not already had another hold on it, I might have deferred it, reluctant to read two American Bildungsromans (is that the plural?) in a row. As it turns out, the order was fortuitous, because the lyrical but slight Another Brooklyn is eclipsed by this much meatier book.
Sarah, or Monique as her family knows her, is the youngest of twelve children, and she never knew her father who died when she was six months old. Long before her birth, her mother Ivory Mae bought 4121 Wilson Avenue when the flood-prone New Orleans East area was opened up for industrial and housing development. The house, which she only knew to be ‘the yellow house’ on account of its yellow cladding, was a shotgun house that cost $3500, located at the ‘short’ end of Wilson Avenue, with a trailer park across the road and a scattering of houses along the street. It no longer stands. It was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and was finally demolished as part of the inadequate rebuilding program that was quick to knock-down damaged houses but stingy in replacing them.
This memoir combines national and local history, family stories and her own story of place and identity. As the youngest, her older siblings circulated in and out of her life as they got jobs, had children, married, separated, and in one case fell into addiction. Her mother and 4121 Wilson Avenue are the linchpins of the family. The house, poorly built from the start, became at the same time a source of shame but also the tethering-spot for the family. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and with the hollowing out of America’s manufacturing base, their house became marooned in a deserted industrial area, surrounded by the faded dreams spruiked by developers and boosters. Like many African-Americans in 1960s America, Broom’s family were part of the economic under-class, taking several poorly-paid jobs to cobble together an income. She is the one in her family who ‘escapes’, gaining a university education, a job in journalism. After Hurricane Katrina, her family splinters as her siblings shift to other states. Even though she had not lived in the Yellow House for many years, she is cut adrift too once the house has been destroyed, shifting to Burundi as an expatriate, then returning to live in the touristy French Quarter of the rebuilding New Orleans.
Although this is a memoir, it also reads like a history. She has clearly interviewed her mother and siblings, with direct quotations, and her mother’s words are italicized, appearing throughout the book. As the youngest in a large family, the family lore stretches for decades before her birth. The book is intimate, but also forensic. In trying to piece together the history of the house and New Orleans East she combs through archives and interrogates workers in local government departments. The reporter/journalist is uppermost in her section on Hurricane Katrina. She is circumspect in what she reveals of herself to the reader, with family and place at the heart of her analysis. There is no blame and no howling of injured entitlement here, but instead a clear-eyed, steady gaze at her family and family home, moving out from the personal and particular to a broader analysis of New Orleans and its place within the American dream.
I just loved this book.
My rating: 9.5 (and because the year is yet young, it may well grow into a 10 by the end of the year)
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library