"Sarah M. Broom's [memoir] The Yellow House tells a hundred years of her family and their relationship to home in a neglected area of one of America's most mythologized cities. This is the story of a mother's struggle against a house's entropy, and that of a prodigal daughter who left home only to reckon with the pull that home exerts, even after the Yellow House was wiped off the map after Hurricane Katrina."--
This is the story of a family with a tenacious desire to succeed, hard working for the most part (except for one brother who succumbs to drugs) and very loving. Then along comes Hurricane Katrina and everything changes. But it really just comes together.
By that time the author is an adult and ready to produce the book she was meant to write. Through intense research into the annals of the history of the city, along with her family's history, Broom was able to trace the steps that lead to what was almost pre-destined: the destruction of the Yellow House and East New Orleans by the neglect of the city itself, the fore fathers who deemed this an acceptable place for people to reside and The history of Broom's family and neighbors.
I'm left with a feeling of sorrow and desolation. Broom did a stellar job relating how things just piled up until they finally could do nothing but collapse. The fact that she went back and rented an apartment in the French Quarter, where people like her are not supposed to be able to live, was astounding. The very saddest part was the fact that the city of New Orleans took eleven years to settle with Ivory May for her destroyed property. And for all that time, Brooms's brother, Carl maintains the property as if there is a house on it. Just incredibly sad and powerful. Probably one of the most powerful memoirs I've read. Highly recommended.
The East began to gain significant numbers of residents in the 1960s, when developers and politicians touted the former cypress marshland as a "new frontier" that would soon become "the brightest spot in the South, the envy of every land-shy community in America." The creation of the NASA New Orleans East facility during the Space Age was the main driver for the East's development, as houses of varying quality and design were quickly constructed to meet the hyperbolic prediction that 175,000 or more people would move there within a decade. The East was originally planned to be an exclusively or nearly entirely white community, as segregation was still rampant in the city and state, but increasing numbers of African Americans began to move there in the 1980s once the last remnants of Jim Crow were extinguished, leading to white flight to the suburbs. Some very nice neighborhoods remained, particularly in the communities close to Lake Forest Boulevard and Read Boulevard near Lake Pontchartrain and north of Chef Menteur Highway, but areas to the south of Chef Menteur and close to the Intracoastal Waterway fell into progressive disrepair, due to its impoverished residents and the worsening crime experienced throughout the city. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 proved to be a devastating blow to the East, as thousands of houses were severely and irreparably damaged, and many formerly inhabited streets and sections are now bereft of people.
4121 Wilson Avenue is the location of the Yellow House, the shotgun house named for the color of its siding, that the author's mother, Ivory Mae Gant, purchased in 1961 at the age of 19, using money from the insurance policy she received after her first husband died unexpectedly. The street is on the south side of Chef Menteur Highway, with similar shotgun houses on one side and industrial development on the other. Ivory remarried, and Sarah Monique Broom was born to Ivory and Simon Broom on New Year's Eve 1979, months before Simon died of a cerebral aneurysm. By the time of her father's death the house contained a dozen children, with Sarah being the baby of the clan, as her mother never remarried nor allowed another man to touch her.
Sarah left home after high school to attend college at the University of North Texas and UC Berkeley, and after graduation she moved to Harlem to work for O, the Oprah Magazine and as a program director of a radio station in the capital of Burundi, before she returned to Harlem, with infrequent visits back home, as the Yellow House fell into progressive disrepair after her father's death. She was living in NYC in 2005 when Katrina decimated the Yellow House, causing her family to flee the city, and from the home that none of them would ever live in again.
'The Yellow House' is an autobiography of the author and her maternal family over a century, an account of what happened to her mother and siblings who lived in the house during and after The Water, her name for Katrina, and a reconciliation with the brothers and sisters who she hadn't seen often since her move away from New Orleans. It also casts its gaze on New Orleans East and the city as a whole, as she uses the vantage point of an apartment in the French Quarter, the historical and cultural center of the city, to do her research. It is one of the most interesting, well written and compelling memoirs I've ever read, which was of particular interest to me as I lived in New Orleans for three years while attending college and had close relatives and friends there who were also forced to flee the city after Katrina and have never returned. I have no criticisms of this superb book, which was a worthy winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and it deserves a 5 star rating from me.
Sarah (known to the family as Monique) is the youngest of twelve children born to Ivory Mae Broom. She never knew her father, Simon, who died of an aneurysm shortly after her birth. Sarah, her siblings, and several step- and half-siblings were raised in the yellow shotgun house that her mother purchased when she was first widowed at age nineteen. A proud woman, Ivory Mae managed to make ends meet on a nursing home carer's salary, even scraping together the funds to pay for Sarah's private schooling. At home, she constantly cleaned her house, doing her best to provide a safe and loving home.
I was surprised, then, to learn that no one but family was ever invited into the home. Ivory Mae's reason was that other people wouldn't see it like they did. The reality was that, despite her efforts, the house was falling apart. There were rats, water stains, cracks in the foundation, holes in the drywall, even places where walls were missing. But for the Broom family, it was home--at least until Hurricane Katrina hit.
Sarah Broom tells a brave story of a close extended family dealing with the hands that they were dealt: early and unexpected deaths, teenage pregnancies, crime, addiction, displacement and more. Through it all, Ivory Mae created a loving home in a now-lost neighborhood that was where her children still feel is where they belong. It's bittersweet to watch Sarah and her older brothers Carl and Michael returning to the muddy vacant lot where the yellow house once stood.
As the youngest of twelve children brought up in the desolate (even pre-Katrina) New Orleans East, the author brings us alongside, to live in the tumbledown house she thrived in and suffered through. The reader actually LEARNS Sarah, her mother Ivory Mae, her grandmother Rose, her brothers, her doomed childhood friend Alvin, the isolation of their neighborhood, and the family's shame of place and pride of blood. Sarah escapes to college in Texas, skitters across the world, to Harlem, Burundi, the French Quarter, Oprah Magazine, but never manages to shake her allegiance to her ravaged city and to that damned house.
Quotes: "We were composed children. We walked upright, possibly with airs, expecting great things of ourselves and everyone around us. Like her mother, my mother buried her rage and despair deep within, under layers and layers of poise."
"It is a terrible thing to see love misfire into a million different directions."
"Remembering is a chair that is hard to sit on."
"It is hard to talk about returning to a place you have not psychically left."
This author is a force to be reckoned with. By tapping the reader’s mind rather than ham-fistedly trying to make points, Broom allows for a gentle and deep-delving trip through her past and present by means of family and places.
When I call my eldest brother, Simon, at his home in North Carolina to explain all of the things I want to know and why, he expresses worry that by writing this all down here, I will disrupt, unravel, and tear down everything the Broom family has ever built. He would like, now, to live in the future and forget about the past.
“There is a lot we have subconsciously agreed that we don’t want to know,” he tells me. When he asks about my project, I am imprecise, lofty, saying I am writing about “architecture and belonging and space.” “It is a problem when you are talking too much,” he says.
I take his sentence down in my notebook at the moment he says it, just as he says it. I have not added a single word. Nor have I taken anything away.
There is a sublime scent around all that Broom writes about the small and the big. She exercises firm control and lets texts feel rhythm in a way that allows the book to breathe.
Just after Eddie was born, Booker T. Washington High School changed its policy. Mothers were no longer accepted. Ivory Mae could, the school suggested, finish at a special school for delinquents, for messed-up kids, but she couldn’t see being set apart in this, the wrong way. She pleaded with the principal to please make an exception and take her back, but she was a poor example for the other girls now. Nothing about her looks and charm could change that he said. She had entered womanhood, her first dream of finishing high school and going to college, dissolved.
Mother spanks me in silence. Afterward I run into the living room where we are not supposed to be and threaten to call “child protection services” on the rotary phone. My mother says, Go right ahead, please call them, and that deflates the whole thing.
The book verges between the then and now as it does for people who are on the very brink between catastrophe and calm, between Hurricane Katrina and the now, somewhat.
Five days since the levees broke. There is nothing to do here except to feel helpless. All of the windows of my duplex are wide open tonight, to let the outside sounds come in. I am being particular about this because my loudmouthed neighbors remind me of home. I sit cross-legged before the television set in my swamp-green painted room, watching CNN on mute, searching only for Carl’s white cotton socks pulled up high, size 13 feet. In the day to day, I neglect serious consideration of any newspaper article except to scan for names and faces of my beloveds—Michael, Carl, Ivory, Karen, Melvin, Brittany. Imagine this being all that you can do. It is as paltry as it sounds.
This is a beautiful book of a person, a family, a city, and a future that grew and continues to grow in spite and because of life.
The opening of the story, tells of Ivory Mae's huge and complicated family background and was almost overwhelming to keep track of. Eventually, as I got the siblings and step-siblings in mind, the story started to become more interesting.
A large portion of the book tells of Sarah's own life, her education, her travels to Africa, and her relationships with her siblings including one brother who is an often-times scary addict. However, throughout Ivory Mae's resilience and love are steadfast.
Katrina destroys the house and the neighborhood. The road to "recovery" for New Orleans is a harsh look at the local government and the "Road to Recovery" program supposedly to help the residents come back. The final chapters of the book shows what a disaster that is as the neighborhood where the author grew up is now deserted and almost completely without city services.
The writing in the book is good, the family is interesting in that they are "average" people; Sarah has by far the widest experiences. Overall, a good read more about family relationships than a house and more about the City of New Orleans and the parts that no one ever thinks about.
Early on, Broom explains, "On a detailed city map once given to me by Avis Rent a Car, the French Quarter has been shaded in light turquoise, magnified in a box at the bottom of the page. New Orleans East [where Broom grew up] is cut off, a point beyond, a blank space on someone's mental map. ... New Orleans East is fifty times the size of the French Quarter, one-fourth of the city's developed surface. Properly mapped, it might swallow the page whole." This map, of course, is a metaphor for the ways NOEast has been marginalized and neglected, both in the popular imagination, and materially, in the lack of good sewage systems and drainage, street lights, funding, concern for neighborhoods when throwing up a highway, and concern for the people after Hurricanes Betsy (1965) and Katrina.
But following this beginning, I found it difficult to engage with this book for the next few chapters. Broom presents her extended family tree, from her great-grandparents forward, and I found my mind wandering as if I were reading that section of the Bible: "So-and-so begat so-and-so..." Next comes what felt like a history of New Orleans/NO East, and while it was interesting, it didn't feel much like a personal memoir. Then, at last, we return to Sarah/Monique (her family name) and her story. From her trip to college, and grad school at Berkeley, and her jobs at O (Oprah's magazine) and in Burundi to help Alexis Sinduhije, "the Nelson Mandela of East Africa," and as a speechwriter back in New Orleans, and her life in Harlem, and then back to the French Quarter to embark on becoming a full-time writer, we follow her as she pursues her peripatetic life, reflecting on her family and the Yellow House, and learning as she goes. That part of the book was a pleasure.
As with many other memoirs that are rooted in place (the South, Africa, etc.), I appreciate discovering how aspects of that place shape the author's sense of identity and purpose. My one gripe is that I found the language somewhat uneven. At times, it feels poetic and spare and perfect: "Remembering is a chair that is hard to sit on." But other times, I felt it seemed flat to me, most often when I found a series of five or six sentences in a row constructed around "was." Still, this is an ambitious, original memoir, with a view into a world I knew very little about. I'd recommend.
The Yellow House, winner of the National Book Award, is Sarah Bloom's memoir about growing up in East New Orleans. The disclaimer of the first word, East, lets the reads know this is not the famed French Quarter or rowdy Bourbon Street known to visitors. East New Orleans is the off the beaten path forgotten part of the city where Sarah's mother Ivory Mae bought a house with the insurance money left when her husband died. She was nineteen at the time and would go on to marry again, eventually raising 12 children, the author being the youngest. "We span the generations, born to every decade, beginning in the forties. I arrived ten hours before the eighties."
As the youngest, Ms. Bloom then relies on the stories of her brothers and various older relatives to recreate the tale of this house and the saga of its finality after Katrina has devastated the family home. Ms. Bloom packs her memoir with valuable history regarding the segregation policies of the sixties, of school being integrated long after Brown vs. Bd of Ed. She also provides a first hand account of the corruption after Katrina, or the Water as it's called, how it took eleven years to settle what was to become with the yellow house of her childhood.
Even as I write this, I am troubled again by what it meant for us—me and my eleven siblings—to have to cross Chef Menteur Highway, which was then and is now a sea of prostitution with cars pulling over, sometimes partway onto the sidewalk, creeping alongside you even if you were only a child on an errand; these were mostly men in cars, making deals.
Mom sent me as a kid to buy “liver cheese” for one dollar a pound. Years later, a graduate student at Berkeley, I would discover that the liver cheese we paid practically nothing for was dressed up, called pâté, and cost nine dollars a pound.
When you are babiest in a family with eleven older points of view, eleven disparate rallying cries, eleven demanding and pay-attention-to-me voices—all variations of the communal story—developing your own becomes a matter of survival. There can be, in this scenario, no neutral ground.
My mother is always saying, Begin as you want to end. But my beginning precedes me. Absences allow us one power over them: They do not speak a word. We say of them what we want. Still, they hover, pointing fingers at our backs. No place to go now but into deep ground.
1811 the largest slave revolt in American history, an army of five hundred or so, wound its way along the River Road for two days, strategically headed toward New Orleans to take over the city, stopping only to light plantations afire after loading up on weaponry. They made it far, considering—twenty of forty-one miles—before a local white militia halted them. Some slaves escaped; others were shot on the spot. Of the unlucky ones put on trial, most had their heads severed and placed on poles atop the River Road’s levees—forty miles of heads, the grisly trophies of petrified whites.
John McDonogh was a wealthy slave owner who in 1850 bequeathed half of his estate to New Orleans public schools, insisting that his money be used for “the establishment and support of free schools wherein the poor and the poor only and of both sexes and classes and castes of color shall have admittance.”
She was tall and thin with an oval face that held seeking eyes and controlled lips that seemed to be clamping down on something soft.
Alvin is my rough-playing next-door neighbor. By the time his mother dies when he is eleven—and suddenly so—he will be my soul brother and closest friend. Our relationship is so long that I cannot remember ever first meeting. He is hide-and-go-seek in wet summer air and five-cent Laffy Taffys with knock-knock jokes on the wrapper.
Our side of Wilson Avenue, the short end, seems a no-matter place where police cars routinely park, women’s heads bobbing up and down in the driver’s seat. I am struck with the wonder of this, how we live in a city where police take such peculiar coffee breaks.
The floor became pocked with holes. Around this time, the rats came to live with us, making so much noise in the kitchen while I was trying to read James Baldwin or sleep that I didn’t dare get up out of bed to see what they were doing.
“Paying attention to being alive”
The book was well written and has given me a lot to think about. I must mention the racial inequality which is ever evident in the book and is so unfair and sad.
It's a great book.
The Yellow House is the house where Sarah Broom grew up, and which was rendered uninhabitable by Hurricane Katrina. The city later demolished it, with little notice. Her mother than spent 11 years trying to get her Road Home grant--and she finally did, but the time and effort put into it!
With 11 older siblings (some half- some full-), a father who died when she herself was 6 months old, and a mother who was widowed twice, and a childhood home she describes as her mother's "unruly 13th child), this book is Broom's examination of place, history, relationships, life, New Orleans, race, dreams, Katrina, post-Katrina recovery (or maybe "recovery"), and more. It is simply so well done it feels impossible to categorize.
I went into this book expecting a memoir, but the geography and history is so strong--as a history/geography double major back in the day (at Cal, where Broom got her MA in Journalism), I love this stuff. So worthy of the NBA for Nonfiction.