With 1,836 lives lost due to the hurricane and subsequent flooding, Hurricane Katrina was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States and the costliest in terms of property damage. City of Refuge is the story of how the hurricane affects two very different families living in New Orleans.
SJ Williams, his sister Lucy and her son Wesley were all born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward. New Orleans is their place and they are proud to have made lives there. The widowed SJ owns his own carpentry and repair business, loves to read and cook while watching over his family. Lucy struggles with drug and alcohol dependence while scraping by working odd jobs where she could find them. Nineteen year old Wesley is at the point in his life where he’s no longer a boy but not yet a man. He feels smothered by his Uncle SJ’s subtle pressure to become more than just another thug in the neighborhood.
Craig Donaldson is married with two small children. He and his wife Alice are both New Orleans transplants. Nobody had ever had more of a crush on New Orleans than Craig. As editor of Gumbo Magazine he reveled in the rich musical history and the characters found in neighborhoods throughout the city. However more and more lately his wife is feeling a restlessness coming from giving up her own painting and teaching career to the increasing violence and decaying infrastructure of the public school system. Now once again faced with packing up and evacuating the kids Alice is more convinced than ever that it’s time to leave New Orleans and doesn’t hesitate to make this clear to Craig.
From a few days before the hurricane to first Mardi Gras celebration six months after the devastation Piazza documents the lives of both families with raw emotion and genuine feeling. During the first night of the storm SJ is prowling the house checking rooms sealed up like tombs to the raging outdoors and you can feel the worry coming off the pages. While staying with relatives in Chicago, Alice has made the decision that Craig himself can’t come to terms with. It’s time to leave New Orleans and make a new life for their family. You get a true sense of Alice’s need to protect her family while still feeling the anguish that’s pulling Craig in two directions.
The book is a true homage to the author’s love of the city and I enjoyed getting to know these characters and be a part of their lives. I would recommend this book to book clubs who will have much to discuss about the book, the city and social differences of the characters.