Sarah H. Broom
The Yellow House
Grove Press, 2019
Reviewed by Katie Field
Part Hurricane Katrina testimony and part journalistic chronicle of the development and devastation of New Orleans East, Sarah H. Broom’s The Yellow House is a meticulously researched example of how to tell a story that began before she was born and continued even after she had moved away. Combining skilled reporting with tales from her family’s oral history, Broom charts a literary map of the East, one of the city’s largest and most neglected residential areas. She offers an intimate window into her loving, often melancholic relationship with her family’s yellow house, her experience of growing up in poverty, and the guilt that plagues her for having survived, and simultaneously having been absent from Hurricane Katrina. Within her narrative of familial loss, Broom also makes a series of powerful statements about what it means to love and be failed by a hometown built upon the violent exploitation of its African American citizens. By digging her heels into the land that the storm and the corrupt city stole from her community, Broom adds a new texture to the under-acknowledged reality that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was much more than the aftershocks of a “natural” disaster.
Broom prefaces The Yellow House with a detailed cartography of the enormous East and a humble invitation to step inside her childhood home. In many ways, her book is composed for outsiders, and she spells out classic New Orleans quirks at a rate that risks boring locals: “In New Orleans, we tell direction by where we are in relation to the Mississippi River.” Or, the fact that city streets have “neutral ground, as we call medians.” While these familiarities might sound like the stammering of an author trying too hard to demonstrate local knowledge, at a closer glance, they breathe nuance into the mundane. What does it mean, for example, to tell direction by water when growing up in the East, where the swampy land has been dredged, sliced, and levied to perpetuate inevitable, life-taking floods? What does it mean to know what to call the neutral ground of Chef Menteur Highway when, as Broom’s was, your sister was run over by a car as she walked to elementary school? In this way, The Yellow House unfolds: including plenty of context for a non-local readership but offering brave testimony to a version of the city that many locals are also unaware of or choose to ignore.
Four ‘Movements’ define the memoir, each broken into several chapters. The first two, entitled “The World Before Me” and “The Grieving House,” meander through Broom’s family history, childhood, and university studies, alluding to what she refers to as “the psychic cost of defining oneself by the place where you are from.” This act of time travel constitutes a journey that is sometimes tedious, but often poignant and rewarding. In particular, Broom’s account of the marketing and development strategy that crafted New Orleans East in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, as well as the ecological devastation that it heralded, gives context for her family’s decision to settle in the area and accounts for the non-human cost of life upon which the project gambled. She writes that “when construction began in 1958, the marshes lit up in a dynamite explosion that BOOM, BOOM, BOOMED, debris flying three hundred feet in the air.” Following the construction, “ghost cypress tree trunks stood up everywhere in the water like witnesses…The now unrestrained saltwater that flowed in from the Gulf would damage surrounding wetlands and lagoons and erode the natural storm surge barrier protecting low-lying places like New Orleans East.” Broom is a master at crafting dramatic non-fiction narrative around natural and familial events that she was not there to witness, and clearly lays out the relationship between the development of the East, the disenfranchisement of its residents, and the pattern of storm-induced floods that continue to plague this area.
Within these Movements, Broom also introduces her mother’s speaking voice, transcribed from interviews, to create an intergenerational, multivocal story that belongs to both women collectively. Her mother speaks to the death of Broom’s father, Simon, and how Sarah and her eleven siblings were raised in the yellow house that Simon built. She illuminates the material shame of poverty—trying to keep clean a house with a caved in roof—compounded by the injustice of displacement following Hurricane Katrina. In Movement III, “Water,” Broom expands upon that multivocality, drawing from transcribed interviews with each of her family members in order to dramatize what it was like to be both present and absent for Katrina. Her siblings live and breathe their own stories of evacuation and entrapment into the memoir. From these stories, Sarah is able to chart their paths of dispersal across the state and country, creating a map of her family’s separation. She also attends to the means by which political hypocrisy exacerbated the trauma and tragedy of their experience. Broom opens one chapter: “Those images shown on the news of fellow citizens drowned, abandoned, and calling for help were not news to us, but still further evidence of what we long ago knew. I knew, for example, that we lived in an unequal, masquerading world.” The only unsatisfying reading experience here is in her lengthy digression about a nine-month journey to Burundi, another place with a living history of displacement, but one that does not offer very much in terms of Broom’s own narrative.
In the fourth and final Movement, “Do You Know What It Means? Investigations,” The Yellow House becomes a chronicle of Broom’s writing residency in the French Quarter. It is a story of craft and pilgrimage, indulgent at certain moments of writerly self-reflection. Perhaps the most interesting and useful details of this Movement are those that reveal her journalistic process of understanding how her family came to own a house in an area legally zoned for industry. The questions she asks of the city, through interviews and careful archival work, speak volumes. In part, the how and why of urban segregation, lost land rights, and environmental degradation are unanswerable. In others, they are clearly built into the power structure of New Orleans. In the chapter entitled “Photo Op,” Broom’s overarching critique of the city’s power relations, and what it means to speak out (or write) about them, comes forth with the force of a flood. With frustration, she writes “To criticize New Orleans is to put one’s authenticity at stake. But I resist the notion that if you have left the city…you ought to stay quiet.” Who has the right to tell the story of a place, she asks, when tens of thousands of black New Orleanians still have not returned?
For those who claim to love New Orleans, and for students of literature and environmental history, this book is an important read. Approach it with patience, understanding that Broom has told an impossible, imperfect, and necessary story. It is a bold act, to take on the role of Katrina spokesperson. Broom pulls it off with courage, artistry, and so much heart, drawing attention to the ripple effects of the Gulf Coast catastrophe across the United States and to the systemic racism that allowed the hurricane to function as a force of terror.