Monday, May 2, 2011

Disappointing Post-Katrina Read

In light of an upcoming trip to New Orleans, I'd really been looking forward to reading a book I'd heard about by Julia Reed called The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story. Reed is a writer who had never put solid roots down anywhere for about 20 years when she decided to marry and buy a fixer upper in the Garden District. The house had once been very grand and needed a lot of work, which the couple started with the hire of a general contractor and a host of laborers only four weeks before Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast. All of that sounds interesting, right? Here's where I began to grow frustrated. While I enjoyed the funny anecdotes at the beginning of the book, and Reed's writing style throughout, at some point my opinion turned and I started to not like her New Orleans story so much.

I remember very well watching all the coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath back in 2005. The weekend after the storm when the levees had broken in New Orleans and the chaos was just heartbreaking and unbelievable, a friend was visiting me for the weekend. We absolutely could not turn away from the reports on CNN. I won't ever forget the images of people and animals being lifted from rooftops by helicopter, those unfortunate people waiting for help along the bridge and the terrible reports that were coming out of the Superdome. Each image of a demolished house with spray painting indicating that it had been checked for bodies was haunting.

Reed only touches on these things likely because she didn't have these experiences. First, she and her husband were luckier than many New Orleans residents in that they owned a car and had the money to buy gas and had a place to stay elsewhere. Second, she and her husband have connections all over Louisiana and Mississippi, and I will say that they used those connections for good. However, I realized at some point that Reed was more focused on dropping the names of all the notable people she associates with in New Orleans and all those people to whom she gave money. Couldn't she have left these things out? When it started to be a focus of the book, and no longer a focus on her beautiful home or the city of New Orleans itself, I lost interest quickly. For example, she starts dropping money like crazy after the storm, helping people who'd worked on her house, been servers at parties she'd thrown over the years, etc. Then, she ordered barbecue enough for 700 National Guard troops who were watching her neighborhood, and she didn't even ask the price. Not to mention all the expense incurred to do over a historic home twice. There's no doubt that she was trying to help those who needed it, but my goodness, did she have to tell us over and over and over again that she gave/sent so-and-so money?

Reed must be friends with nearly every notable person in New Orleans, and she mentioned each one of them by name in the book. A few weeks after the hurricane, Reed tells about all the restaurant reopenings she attended each night as the city was coming back to life. Fun, yes, and I know that's what New Orleans is all about most of the time. But what about all those folks who were still eating meals fixed by church mission teams because that's all they could get?

Don't take this the wrong way. I finished this book just as excited to see New Orleans as I had been before. And I know that everyone is entitled to share his or her story the way he or she experienced it, and Reed has certainly exercised that right in her book. Though I haven't been there before, the media portrays the city as a place of the very poor and the very rich. Reed clearly hangs with the very rich (or at least the very connected), and I think the resilience of the regular folks with less options was more what I wanted to read about. This leaves me with the desire to read something about the regular folks in New Orleans and how they've risen above the destruction. Does anyone have a suggestion for me?

1 comment:

  1. That is disappointing! I hate when a book isn't what I expect. Have you read Zeitoun? It is about one family's experience in Katrina and the aftermath. I liked it a lot. Also, the Newseum in DC has a Katrina exhibit focused on reporting the storm. You can see some of it online.