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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.

Topics: Family and American South

Published: HarperCollins on Oct 6, 2009
ISBN: 9780061982811
List price: $9.99
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"City of Refuge" is Tom Piazza’s fictional account of the tragic impact that Hurricane Katrina had on the city of New Orleans and, in particular, on two families who lived there, one white and one black. It follows Piazza’s "Why New Orleans Matters," his heartfelt response to those who argued almost immediately after the storm that portions of his beloved city should be leveled and closed forever to future housing. Piazza’s obvious outrage at the way the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was handled is at the core of both books.Craig Donaldson, despite his Michigan roots, loves the city as much as anyone born in New Orleans, as he proved by relocating there to start a new life for himself and his family. His wife, however, even before the hurricane strikes, is starting to wonder about the wisdom of raising their two children in such a place. She is so upset, in fact, that her husband does not share her concern about the environment in which they are raising their children that the Donaldson marriage is getting shakier by the week. And then there is SJ Williams, a black carpenter and Viet Nam veteran who has lived in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward his entire life. SJ lives alone but feels responsible for the well being of his sister Lucy and her son Wesley. None of the three can even imagine living anywhere other than New Orleans, specifically in the Lower Ninth.The Donaldson and Williams families warily watch the progress of Hurricane Katrina as it begins to look more and more likely that the storm will strike their city. Craig Donaldson and SJ Williams do everything they know to do to prepare their homes and property for the devastating wind and rain approaching New Orleans at its own methodical pace. But when it is time to decide whether to evacuate the city or to hunker down inside their homes and hope for the best, the families make different choices. One family decides to leave; one family, with near disastrous results, decides to stay."City of Refuge" does a remarkable job of describing the helplessness of being in the path of a major hurricane with no place to go. Most people caught in such a situation have survived enough previous storms and near-misses that they long ago decided the gamble of staying put outweighed the tortuous evacuation of a major American city – an evacuation that could see them caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hundreds of miles and more than a dozen hours. Despite all the warnings, those who die in their own homes never believe it can actually happen to them until it does. Tragically, however, a substantial portion of New Orleans’s citizens could not have left the city even if they had wanted to because they had no way to leave on their own and their mayor, their governor, and their President failed them.By focusing on two very different families who briefly cross paths only twice, Piazza is able to explore the equally different experiences of those who managed to evacuate prior to the storm’s arrival and those who did not. However, while several cities are given credit for taking in the hundreds of thousands of people who left their homes before and after the storm, the story would have been more complete with some reference to the storm's impact on a city such as Houston, which is still home to tens of thousands of former New Orleans residents. Houston was rewarded with open warfare between New Orleans gangs striving to claim territory in a new city, a spike in its murder rate, gang fights in its public schools, and a probably permanent increase to its welfare rolls. Despite this, most Houstonians would be willing to do it all over again because it is the right thing to do.Striking in its absence is any criticism of Mayor Nagin or Governor Blanco, both of whom failed miserably to prepare their city for what was about to happen to it. Rather, Piazza has his fictional characters direct all of their anger and disdain of government directly at President George W. Bush. There is no doubt that Bush has much to answer for in his handling of the hurricane’s aftermath but equally, if not more, guilty are a mayor and governor who sat back and let a bad situation turn into a nightmare. Neither the mayor nor the governor provided the public transportation necessary to evacuate those who could not do it for themselves or made sure that well-stocked shelters were prepared for those who chose to stay. Having been through Houston’s experience with Hurricane Ike last year, I know that the most important governmental official during the city’s crisis was its mayor – not the governor and not the president. Perhaps most citizens of New Orleans do place the blame exclusively on the shoulders of George Bush (Nagin was, after all, re-elected) and Piazza is reflecting that reality. And, then again, perhaps not."City of Refuge" will be an eye-opener for those who have never experienced a natural disaster of the magnitude of a Katrina or been faced with the unenviable choice of having to decide whether to run or make do with what is left after a hurricane’s passage. The novel deserves praise for vividly recreating what happened in New Orleans during the terrible ordeal of Katrina. But that is only part of the Katrina story.Rated at: 3.0read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Tom Piazza's own experience of being evacuated from New Orleans must have played a significant role in his writing of City of Refuge. The horror, the grief, the devastation, the hollowness, and a range of other emotions following the 2005 disaster, known as Hurricane Katrina, rips through readers' hearts and puts them through the wringer alongside SJ, Craig, and their families."A block away water bubbling and churning from a submerged, ruptured gas line. Below him, amid a cataract of smashed weatherboard, face-down in the water, a man, unmoving; his white T-shirt had ridden up his back almost all the way to his shoulder. A black dog swam by. Not twenty feet away, the sole of a sneaker stuck out of the water, held up by an ankle attached to an invisible leg, waving slightly, probably snagged on something below the surface. . ." (Page 139)SJ and his family live in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was the hardest hit by the hurricane's storm surge, while Craig and his family live in a different section of New Orleans. On the surface, both of these families are different from their skin color to where they live and from their education to their jobs, but what they have in common is a deep connection to the city, its culture, and their homes. Beyond the moral outrage of New Orleanians against the government, insurance companies, and others, which readers will surely have seen on the news or in the papers and magazines, Piazza's novel weaves a tale of surprising resilience -- a common trait in humanity -- a will to survive."One day he saw something he had seen every day for a month and a half, a loose hinge on the closet door. He went downstairs to Aaron's utility room, rummaged around and found a Phillips head screwdriver and an assortment of screws and simply replaced the screw that was in the hinge with a larger one. That would hold it until he could really fix the hinge. That was how you came back, if you came back." (Page 285)Each of these families has their own personal struggles and dynamics, which Piazza deftly navigates in alternating story lines weaving a tense atmosphere before, during, and after the hurricane. Piazza's characters are deep with their own backgrounds, personalities, and demons, and SJ is a prime example. As a Vietnam War veteran, he's already had enough to deal with before Hurricane Katrina. In a way -- like so many other veterans -- he never made it back from the war completely and has been going through the motions of life."Aaron would get him to go out for walks. Aaron, who had also been in Vietnam, knew a fair amount about the traumatic syndrome that SJ was struggling with, and exercise and talking through things could be important. Some days they would walk and SJ was silent, some days he would talk for a while, and then get silent. Often he had violent fantasies that would crumble apart into debilitating grief. 'I don't want to be angry like this A,' SJ said. 'I spent long enough dealing with it. I never thought I'd have to be back in this.'" (Page 273)Piazza's comparisons of PTSD among Vietnam War veterans and the PTSD of New Orleanians is a valid comparison, and City of Refuge brings with it an emotional tsunami that readers cannot ignore. One of the best books I've read this year, and an excellent selection for book clubs because of the range of social and political issues it illuminates.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
I really loved this book, it gave two totally different perspectives on how life changed for the people and families of grief stricken New Orleans after the terrible hurricane Katrina. To note the different areas that were virtually untouched compared to the areas and neighborhoods that might never be rebuilt again. It makes my heart hang heavy, but wish to know people like these that just keep moving forward.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Read all reviews

Reviews

"City of Refuge" is Tom Piazza’s fictional account of the tragic impact that Hurricane Katrina had on the city of New Orleans and, in particular, on two families who lived there, one white and one black. It follows Piazza’s "Why New Orleans Matters," his heartfelt response to those who argued almost immediately after the storm that portions of his beloved city should be leveled and closed forever to future housing. Piazza’s obvious outrage at the way the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was handled is at the core of both books.Craig Donaldson, despite his Michigan roots, loves the city as much as anyone born in New Orleans, as he proved by relocating there to start a new life for himself and his family. His wife, however, even before the hurricane strikes, is starting to wonder about the wisdom of raising their two children in such a place. She is so upset, in fact, that her husband does not share her concern about the environment in which they are raising their children that the Donaldson marriage is getting shakier by the week. And then there is SJ Williams, a black carpenter and Viet Nam veteran who has lived in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward his entire life. SJ lives alone but feels responsible for the well being of his sister Lucy and her son Wesley. None of the three can even imagine living anywhere other than New Orleans, specifically in the Lower Ninth.The Donaldson and Williams families warily watch the progress of Hurricane Katrina as it begins to look more and more likely that the storm will strike their city. Craig Donaldson and SJ Williams do everything they know to do to prepare their homes and property for the devastating wind and rain approaching New Orleans at its own methodical pace. But when it is time to decide whether to evacuate the city or to hunker down inside their homes and hope for the best, the families make different choices. One family decides to leave; one family, with near disastrous results, decides to stay."City of Refuge" does a remarkable job of describing the helplessness of being in the path of a major hurricane with no place to go. Most people caught in such a situation have survived enough previous storms and near-misses that they long ago decided the gamble of staying put outweighed the tortuous evacuation of a major American city – an evacuation that could see them caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hundreds of miles and more than a dozen hours. Despite all the warnings, those who die in their own homes never believe it can actually happen to them until it does. Tragically, however, a substantial portion of New Orleans’s citizens could not have left the city even if they had wanted to because they had no way to leave on their own and their mayor, their governor, and their President failed them.By focusing on two very different families who briefly cross paths only twice, Piazza is able to explore the equally different experiences of those who managed to evacuate prior to the storm’s arrival and those who did not. However, while several cities are given credit for taking in the hundreds of thousands of people who left their homes before and after the storm, the story would have been more complete with some reference to the storm's impact on a city such as Houston, which is still home to tens of thousands of former New Orleans residents. Houston was rewarded with open warfare between New Orleans gangs striving to claim territory in a new city, a spike in its murder rate, gang fights in its public schools, and a probably permanent increase to its welfare rolls. Despite this, most Houstonians would be willing to do it all over again because it is the right thing to do.Striking in its absence is any criticism of Mayor Nagin or Governor Blanco, both of whom failed miserably to prepare their city for what was about to happen to it. Rather, Piazza has his fictional characters direct all of their anger and disdain of government directly at President George W. Bush. There is no doubt that Bush has much to answer for in his handling of the hurricane’s aftermath but equally, if not more, guilty are a mayor and governor who sat back and let a bad situation turn into a nightmare. Neither the mayor nor the governor provided the public transportation necessary to evacuate those who could not do it for themselves or made sure that well-stocked shelters were prepared for those who chose to stay. Having been through Houston’s experience with Hurricane Ike last year, I know that the most important governmental official during the city’s crisis was its mayor – not the governor and not the president. Perhaps most citizens of New Orleans do place the blame exclusively on the shoulders of George Bush (Nagin was, after all, re-elected) and Piazza is reflecting that reality. And, then again, perhaps not."City of Refuge" will be an eye-opener for those who have never experienced a natural disaster of the magnitude of a Katrina or been faced with the unenviable choice of having to decide whether to run or make do with what is left after a hurricane’s passage. The novel deserves praise for vividly recreating what happened in New Orleans during the terrible ordeal of Katrina. But that is only part of the Katrina story.Rated at: 3.0
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Tom Piazza's own experience of being evacuated from New Orleans must have played a significant role in his writing of City of Refuge. The horror, the grief, the devastation, the hollowness, and a range of other emotions following the 2005 disaster, known as Hurricane Katrina, rips through readers' hearts and puts them through the wringer alongside SJ, Craig, and their families."A block away water bubbling and churning from a submerged, ruptured gas line. Below him, amid a cataract of smashed weatherboard, face-down in the water, a man, unmoving; his white T-shirt had ridden up his back almost all the way to his shoulder. A black dog swam by. Not twenty feet away, the sole of a sneaker stuck out of the water, held up by an ankle attached to an invisible leg, waving slightly, probably snagged on something below the surface. . ." (Page 139)SJ and his family live in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was the hardest hit by the hurricane's storm surge, while Craig and his family live in a different section of New Orleans. On the surface, both of these families are different from their skin color to where they live and from their education to their jobs, but what they have in common is a deep connection to the city, its culture, and their homes. Beyond the moral outrage of New Orleanians against the government, insurance companies, and others, which readers will surely have seen on the news or in the papers and magazines, Piazza's novel weaves a tale of surprising resilience -- a common trait in humanity -- a will to survive."One day he saw something he had seen every day for a month and a half, a loose hinge on the closet door. He went downstairs to Aaron's utility room, rummaged around and found a Phillips head screwdriver and an assortment of screws and simply replaced the screw that was in the hinge with a larger one. That would hold it until he could really fix the hinge. That was how you came back, if you came back." (Page 285)Each of these families has their own personal struggles and dynamics, which Piazza deftly navigates in alternating story lines weaving a tense atmosphere before, during, and after the hurricane. Piazza's characters are deep with their own backgrounds, personalities, and demons, and SJ is a prime example. As a Vietnam War veteran, he's already had enough to deal with before Hurricane Katrina. In a way -- like so many other veterans -- he never made it back from the war completely and has been going through the motions of life."Aaron would get him to go out for walks. Aaron, who had also been in Vietnam, knew a fair amount about the traumatic syndrome that SJ was struggling with, and exercise and talking through things could be important. Some days they would walk and SJ was silent, some days he would talk for a while, and then get silent. Often he had violent fantasies that would crumble apart into debilitating grief. 'I don't want to be angry like this A,' SJ said. 'I spent long enough dealing with it. I never thought I'd have to be back in this.'" (Page 273)Piazza's comparisons of PTSD among Vietnam War veterans and the PTSD of New Orleanians is a valid comparison, and City of Refuge brings with it an emotional tsunami that readers cannot ignore. One of the best books I've read this year, and an excellent selection for book clubs because of the range of social and political issues it illuminates.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
I really loved this book, it gave two totally different perspectives on how life changed for the people and families of grief stricken New Orleans after the terrible hurricane Katrina. To note the different areas that were virtually untouched compared to the areas and neighborhoods that might never be rebuilt again. It makes my heart hang heavy, but wish to know people like these that just keep moving forward.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Tom Piazza riffs like a jazz musician in his novel City of Refuge, mixing angry and discordant phrases with smooth and harmonious ones. Underneath the ebb and flow of these melodies, his themes of home and identity pulse like a heartbeat.The book examines the lives of two New Orleans families in the days before and after Hurricane Katrina. SJ Williams lives in the doomed Lower Ninth Ward with his sister and nephew; Craig Donaldson and his family live in a middle class enclave across town. With the deadly storm bearing down, the Donaldson’s decamp the city while SJ and his relatives hunker down. Everything changes when the levees break and baptize the city in grimy, unholy water. SJ’s family is torn apart, packed and shipped to opposite ends of the country, while Craig’s family escapes to Chicago, together. Emptiness and confusion plague Craig and SJ as they try to patch together a life separate from New Orleans, each worried that their identities will disintegrate like the city they long for. With stark and brutal language, Piazza filters the tragedy of Katrina through the prism of Craig and SJ’s struggles to define their lives. The characters are so familiar that the reader must ponder the same questions of home and identity. True to the jazz feel of the book, though, Piazza creates a wide range of experiences in his characters. They strike out in every direction like solo improvisations on a theme. In the end, there is room for everyone, refuge for all in this tune. 4 bones!!!!
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
This was a beautiful story surrounding New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. The characters were well developed and interesting. As someone who grew up in Louisiana I found it a hard read to get through. It was very emotional and I had to put it away for days at a time to cope with my personal feelings and memories.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
I loved this book. In telling the story of two families impacted in very different ways by Hurricane Katrina, author Tom Piazza has created something wonderful. His skillful writing makes the reader feel all the emotions that come to play in being forced to leave your home; including the heart wrenching thought that there just might not be anything left to go back to. I know - I live on the Gulf Coast. I wasn't impacted by Katrina, but I did run from Rita, and Piazza has managed to explain exactly what I was feeling on that long drive from home.Piazza has painted masterful portraits of the people who have moved on from New Orleans and the ones who are going back without taking sides as to which is the best course. In fact, he has shown, that for his characters, each chose the right path for himself and his family. Piazza allows you to hear the cadence of New Orleans speech without writing in extreme dialects - something that makes reading this book much easier. All in all, this is a wonderful book that would be enjoyed by anyone wanting a story about the resiliance of people.
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