City of Refuge
By Tom Piazza
(Harper, Hardcover, 9780061238611, 416pp.)
Publication Date: September 2008
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In the heat of late summer, two New Orleans families—one black and one white—confront a storm that will change the course of their lives.
SJ Williams, a carpenter and widower, lives and works in the Lower Ninth Ward, the community where he was born and raised. His sister, Lucy, is a soulful mess, and SJ has been trying to keep her son, Wesley, out of trouble. Across town, Craig Donaldson, a Midwestern transplant and the editor of the city's alternative paper, faces deepening cracks in his own family. New Orleans' music and culture have been Craig's passion, but his wife, Alice, has never felt comfortable in the city. The arrival of their two children has inflamed their arguments about the wisdom of raising a family there.
When the news comes of a gathering hurricane—named Katrina—the two families make their own very different plans to weather the storm. The Donaldsons join the long evacuation convoy north, across Lake Pontchartrain and out of the city. SJ boards up his windows and brings Lucy to his house, where they wait it out together, while Wesley stays with a friend in another part of town.
But the long night of wind and rain is only the beginning—and when the levees give way and the flood waters come, the fate of each family changes forever. The Williamses are scattered—first to the Convention Center and the sweltering Superdome, and then far beyond city and state lines, where they struggle to reconnect with one another. The Donaldsons, stranded and anxious themselves, find shelter first in Mississippi, then in Chicago, as Craig faces an impossible choice between the city he loves and the family he had hoped to raise there.
Ranging from the lush neighborhoods of New Orleans to Texas, Missouri, Chicago, and beyond, City of Refuge is a modern masterpiece—a panoramic novel of family and community, trial and resilience, told with passion, wisdom, and a deep understanding of American life in our time.
Tom Piazza is the author of ten books, including the novels City of Refuge, which won the Willie Morris Award, and My Cold War, as well as the book-length essay Why New Orleans Matters. He writes for HBOs hit drama series Treme and is at work on a new novel. He lives in New Orleans.
How is New Orleans holding up four years after Katrina? Author Tom Piazza's new novel City of Refuge traces the journeys of a handful of locals — some who died, others scattered across the country. Piazza tells Guy Raz that New Orleans is slowly getting to be New Orleans again. More at NPR.org
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“Explaining this city’s inexorable, gravitational pull to outsiders who see only corruption, crime, poverty, and malarial weather is a tough order, but every page of Piazza’s deeply felt story explains a larger truth about why people live where they do: because it’s home, and heart.”
“Though [its] stories are fictional, they may bring home the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in a way all those news reports could not.”
“The big Katrina novel here at last, reconstructing a city’s stubborn spirit through a writer’s keen vision into singular human hearts. . . . Piazza strikes a blow for the recovery with this fine book, a perfect storm of love and anger.”
-New Orleans Times-Picayune
“Likely to become a classic of the future. . . . Its narrative voice is on a par with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. . . . An important book [that] anyone who cares about New Orleans should read.”
“We’ve seen the broad outlines of this story on TV. But through Piazza’s pen, we feel—maybe fully for the first time—the surprise and horror as floodwaters sweep through neighborhoods, inching toward attics.”
“Rich with New Orleans atmosphere and so believable. . . . It’s like living through the storm again.… as hard as it is for people here to read, it’s a book that finally explains what happened. . . . The rest of the country needs to read this novel.”
-Baton Rouge Advocate
“While the characters…are fictional and the events are real, Piazza makes it feel like it is the other way around. His heroes brim with life, while the city’s destruction feels otherworldly. …a tribute to what was, and how to go on from here.”
-New York Post
“Richly detailed, delicately woven and compulsively readable. …an effective plea to appreciate and preserve a city and its way of life. …these neglected individuals and families will both inspire empathy and prevent tragedy in the future. Let’s hope that this is possible outside the realm of fiction.”
-Jackson Free Press
“This emotional novel reads like a memoir, teeming with fear, anger, pathos, hope, determination, and love. It is absolutely essential reading for every American who watched and prayed through those terrible days.”
-Library Journal (starred review)
“In unforgettable scenes of biblical consequence, Piazza dramatizes more devastatingly than any journalistic account the hurricane’s shocking aftermath, aligning the failure to protect, rescue, and respect the people of the Lower Ninth with the sweeping brutality of war. . . . A story as old and heartbreaking as humankind itself.”
-Booklist (starred review)