Near the end of The Yellow House, Sarah Broom (2019) describes New Orleans as a city of feeling: “Most often, when you ask people what they love about New Orleans, they describe the way the city makes them feel” (Broom, 2019, p. 329).
I remember first driving to New Orleans in December 2007, a mere month after I moved from Denton, Texas to Lafayette, Louisiana. Some new work colleagues and I were assisting with home rebuilding in the Musicians Village. Having watched the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina two years earlier, coming to the city for the first time to help rebuild felt appropriate and important, aligned with my servant-oriented values. The two-hour drive from Lafayette to New Orleans was filled with anticipation – I wanted to help, but I also wanted to witness what had occurred. Even two years after the storm, I knew that witnessing was important. We arrived in the Ninth Ward and spent the day engaged in various tasks along a row of almost complete homes for New Orleans musicians displaced by Katrina.
Following our day of service, my colleagues took me to the famed French Quarter. Here, I was introduced to the feeling Sarah Broom discusses near the end of her book. I fell in love with New Orleans. Sitting at a restaurant across from St. Louis Cathedral, eating gumbo, a roast beef po-boy, hush puppies, and fries, I took in the sights and sounds of the square. I observed the street artists, the local street bands, and the chatter of passers-by. We walked the famed Royal Street, with its antique shops and art galleries, and Bourbon Street, with its bars, bead throwing, and vast arrays of music. New Orleans is a feeling, and that day I fell in love with the city. I returned many times over my years living in Louisiana, working to bring the National Orientation Directors Association (NODA) Conference to the city in 2011 to assist with the economic recovery, attending festival activities and Jazz Fest, meeting with friends for a weekend away, and, for a time, ‘living’ there with my then boyfriend. It is a beautiful city, and just thinking of it fills me with visceral feelings of affection.
Though Broom’s book is touted as a coming-of-age story, a family history, a search for self, or even a ‘Hurricane Katrina book’, this book touched me most in its unpacking of New Orleans’ mythology – the mythology of feeling that one gets in the French Quarter, Garden District or Superdome districts – spaces largely of tourism.
The mythology of New Orleans – that it is always the place for a good time; that its citizens are the happiest people alive, willing to smile, dance, cook, and entertain for you; that it is a progressive city open to whimsy and change – can sometimes suffocate the people who live and suffer under the place’s burden, burying them within layers and layers of signifiers, making it impossible to truly get at what is dysfunctional about the city. (Broom, 2019, p. 328)
The mythological New Orleans – the New Orleans of feeling – is not Brooms’ New Orleans. Brooms’ New Orleans is “a city where being held up while getting out of your car is the norm, where many children graduate from school without knowing how to spell, where neglected communities exist everywhere, sometimes a stone’s throw from overabundance” (Broom, 2019, p. 328).
I knew this New Orleans (and Louisiana) as well. Brooms (2019) asks “Who has the rights to the story of a place?” (p. 329). She seeks, in some of the most powerful closing chapters of the book, to actually interrogate the dysfunction that leads to her New Orleans: “debilitating inadequacies of the educational system and the paltry job market” (Broom, 2019, p. 337); the city’s tourist industry, which comes largely “at the expense of its native black people, who are, more often than not, underemployed, [and] underpaid” in the city’s many hotels, bars, and restaurants; the corrupt politicians, the bureaucratic dysfunction of the city and state government; and even the land itself, sinking, surrounded on all sides by water, polluted by oil, gas, and saltwater that has eroded away the protective marshlands. When Broom asks whether the story of a place belongs to those “who stay in the place or those who leave” (p. 329), I could not help but ruminate. I love Louisiana – Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. But, it is the most dysfunctional place I’ve ever lived, its priorities wildly out of balance despite clear solutions to systemic problems. I left.
The feeling the book was supposed to engender for me, or that I anticipated – sympathy, empathy, perhaps even memories of my own childhood home – reflected on through the debilitating loss of a childhood home with its many memories fond and fraught – never materialized for me. My general rule is to avoid reviews of a book prior to reading a text myself, but The Yellow House was everywhere these past few months. It won the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction. It was on The New York Times Top 10 books of 2019 list. Thus, I simply could not avoid the reviews. I heard about the house being a central character in the book, about the beautiful language with which the house was described, and the pain associated with the loss of the house during Katrina. Maybe I heard wrong. The house certainly was a central character in the book, but not in the way I anticipated.
Enter shame, Stage Left. Shame is the centerpiece of the book, forcing readers to reconcile with the difficult question of what it means to be ashamed of one’s home and where one came from. What happens when the shame of where we are from is never reconciled, in our hearts, our minds, or our community? “Shame is a slow creeping. The most powerful things are quietest, if you think about it. Like water” (Broom, 2019, p. 146). Chapter VII of Movement II, titled “Interiors,” is where the book really came into focus for me. Sarah describes how she slowly “came to understand that no one outside our family was ever to come inside the Yellow House” (Broom, 2019, p. 146). This despite her large family, and their warm, welcoming, gregarious nature.
That is shame. A warring within, a revolt against oneself. It can bury you standing if you let it. Those convoluted feelings manifesting as an adrenaline rush, when I narrowly avoided letting someone see the place where I lived. (Broom, 2019, p. 147)
This shame manifests from the dilapidated conditions of the house: the holes in floors and walls that let in mice, rats, and bugs; the unfinished stairway in the addition to the house; the sanded but unpainted doors; the bathroom without hot running water for a shower or bath. “This is how your disappointment in a space builds, becomes personal,” says Sarah. “You, kitchen, do not warm me. You, living room, do not comfort me. You, bedroom, do not keep me” (Broom, 2019, p. 153).
Sarah’s mother Ivory Mae, the matriarch and true heroine of this book, never gives up on the house, even though she too feels shame at its condition, often telling her 12 children You know this house not all that comfortable for other people.
As the house became more and more unwieldy, my mother became more emphatic about cleaning. Mom’s cleanings were exorcisms. At the core of her scrubbings was her belief in meritocratic tropes. That hard work paid off, for instance. (Broom, 2019, p. 154)
The house ultimately cracks in two during Katrina, unable to avoid the torrent of water that spread into New Orleans East largely as the result of manmade levees, canals, and channels (the book contains a quite good history of how this situation came to be early in the book). The Yellow House is torn down by the city, just a cement slab and vacant lot by book’s end. Sarah’s only conclusion to the shame of the house she grew up in, and the shame of losing it, is to recognize what many of us ultimately come to know: “My mother was, I can see now, the house that was safe” (Broom, 2019, p. 149).
Now that is some powerful shit.
Though shame drives the book, Broom does not reconcile this shame by the book’s conclusion. The large middle sections of the book detail her life in college (more reminiscence for me, as she attended the University of North Texas, where I used to work), her work in New York for Oprah Magazine, a stint working in Burundi, then Ray Nagin’s mayor’s office in New Orleans, and back to New York working for a non-profit, and finally back to New Orleans to take up writing permanently. The details here are sparse and almost uninspiring, included, I imagine, to set up a tension in the book on reconciling the leaving of home with finding home upon one’s return. The one exception might be her detailed accounts of moving back to New Orleans’ French Quarter, near the end of the book, which really are beautiful chapters setting up the tension between the mythology and reality of New Orleans. Yet, reconciliations on shame never come through, and Sarah never really finds a home in New Orleans. She returns to New York. Maybe reconciliation was never supposed to happen in the first place. Perhaps reconciliation of loss, the handling of shame, is simply beyond our human capacity. We must go on anyway, the book seems to suggest.
Which leads me to the largest gap in the book, and the biggest disappointment. “I always dwell on absences, I think, more than the presences” (Broom, 2019, p. 122), Sarah states in an easy to throw away line. The absence in the book is that of her father, Simon Broom, who died six months after Sarah was born. Broom tries hard to connect the unfinished business of the house to the absence of her father. Simon Broom is a giant force in the front part of the book, and his death is anticipated and sad. Yet, Sarah rarely discusses the absence of her father, until page 349: “My father is six pictures. . .these photos can be shuffled around, pinned up on my wall in various configurations, held up high in the palm of my hand, and then dropped to the ground, and still they are only six pictures.” Broom goes to the Historic New Orleans Collection to look at old film footage of Doc Paulin’s brass band, with whom Simon Broom used to play trombone. She finds old photos, and sees film, of who she believes is her father, rushing home to show her mother, only to be disappointed. “No, daughter, you have not found him. Not yet. But keep looking” (Broom, 2019, p. 352). All this happens in 3 pages, dropped like a bad habit, quite abruptly. Does Broom keep looking for her father in the collection archives? Will she continue working to reconcile his absence? As readers, we can only make conjecture.
The only feeling I could describe by the book’s end is confounded. The Yellow House adds important voice and perspective to our understanding about New Orleans as a city, and Hurricane Katrina as national tragedy. But the tragedy of the book and the yellow house seems to go much deeper than New Orleans or a manmade structure. This is the tragedy of the human psyche, clamoring for answers but often finding none. The tragedy of a search without a find. The implosion of shame at the harshness of this reality. It may feel highly dispiriting to certain readers.
To me, it is one of the truest things I’ve read. What a shame.
Broom, S. M. (2019). The yellow house. New York, NY: Grove Press.