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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
ISBN: 9780061982811
List price: $10.99
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After reading many books regarding New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, I think this is the best to date.Written in novel form, the author obviously loves and understands the culture of New Orleans. Comparing and contrasting two families impacted by Katrina, the reader journeys to the lower ninth ward and the horror of those who could not flee, who, because of government ineptitude were stranded for days without food and water.SJ Williams is a hard working family man. Living in the ninth ward for most of his life, he built the home he owns. Widowed and still grieving, he is able to count the blessings of a sister and nephew. His sister chooses a life of drugs and his nephew is of great concern to SJ as he watches his choices that lead to crime and danger.When Katrina hits, his sister is with him as the water dangerously fills the house, forcing them to flee to the attic. Finding a boat, he takes her to a bridge on higher ground and returns to bravely rescue those stranded and dying.Through SJ we feel the mounting terror as the leeves break and the helplessness in realizing that the infrastructure of NO is, and always has been, inept and corrupt, and necessary life saving assistance isn't going to come in time.In addition, we travel with Craig Donaldson and his family. Of different socioeconomic status, they have transportation and flee New Orleans with thousands of others whose cars are barely chugging along the crowded causeway leading out of the destruction.Both Williams and Donaldson families share the fact that they are scattered and long for any sense of normalcy.Highly recommended!more
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.more
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.more
Wow. This book left me feeling breathless, powerless, and hopeful all at the same time. Piazza writes about Katrina with a reporter's eye, and uses his talent as a novelist to show us the human elements no journalist could ever see. An incredible suckerpunch of a book that's going to sit with me for a long time.more
SJ Williams lives in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. He shares his life with his nephew Wesley and sister Lucy while still grieving for the loss of his wife Rosetta. SJ is a carpenter and takes pride in his home and community – a vibrant neighborhood where everyone knows everyone; where neighbors help neighbors.Craig Donaldson has moved to New Orleans from the Midwest and has settled with his wife and two young children in a desirable neighborhood. Craig works as an editor for an alternative newspaper. On the surface he seems to have it all – but there are deep cracks in his marriage to Alice who wants to leave New Orleans and return to her Midwestern roots; while Craig’s love of New Orleans lies deep within him and the city has come to be a part of who he is.Different in significant ways, not the least the color of their skin (SJ is black, Craig is white)…the two men’s lives will parallel each other when Katrina – a devastating Category Five hurricane – hits New Orleans. Faced with an uncertain future, both men will have to decide to either stay and rebuild, or leave the city they love.Tom Piazza’s novel City of Refuge takes a hard and brutally honest look at one of the most shameful natural disasters in American history through the eyes of two compelling characters. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina brushed New Orleans with its lethal strength and contributed to the failure of the old and poorly constructed levee system. City, State and Federal governments were slow to response to the tragedy. The ineptness of the response played out on the national news with horrifying images of refugees dying in the Superdome, Convention Center and on the streets. Piazza reveals the humanity behind the tragedy in his beautifully written novel. Laced with the flavor of New Orleans, City of Refuge transports the reader to the days before the hurricane and the months following. In an interview printed at the end of the novel, Piazza says:You can’t understand the kind of experience that people in New Orleans went through from an air-conditioned bus. You need to get the mud and the water and the blood all over you. So that was how I approached the material.Piazza is successful in this effort – the scenes immediately following the disaster, seen through SJ’s eyes, are stunning, sad, and horrible. They also generated a certain amount of renewed rage in me for HOW and WHY the disaster played out as it did.In the midst of it, with up and right and green and there and down and left and here and red jabbering incoherently, you did what you could until help arrived, whether you led a child by the hand through the ruined streets, or endured the blazing sidewalk heat in the crowd outside the Convention Center, or sat trapped in a wheelchair in your living room, abandoned by the nurse, as the water crept up around your ankles, and then your knees, praying, knowing that God never sent you nothing that you couldn’t handle, so it must have been someone else sent all that water that rose mercilessly past your lips and nose (they found you later, out of your wheelchair, under your refrigerator, which had floated and come to rest on top of you), or squatted with hundreds of others in the red haze of afternoon amid the other garbage by the side of the empty interstate, waiting for a helicopter, or a bus or a truck waiting for passage up and out to some city of refuge waiting on a strange horizon. – from City of Refuge, page 169 -But City of Refuge is more than just a replaying of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Piazza’s characters are carefully drawn and very human. Their story asks an essential question: What is the definition of home? It is not just a place, but a community, one’s family, and sense of belonging that develops because of the spirit of the people who live there. Many people have wondered: why rebuild New Orleans? And that question is part and parcel of Piazza’s novel. The answer is complex, but Piazza has simplified it. By showing us the people behind the tragedy – their dreams, their families, their hopes for the future – the question turns on itself. Why NOT rebuild?Only a few pages into City of Refuge, I knew I would love this book. Piazza’s writing is honest and deeply empathetic. It is not surprising that New Orleans becomes almost another character in the novel … Piazza not only survived Hurricane Katrina, he continues to reside there. Although the book exposes the horror and sadness of the tragedy – and reveals the desperation of the people who were affected – it is not a depressing novel. Rather, it leaves the reader with hope and a glimpse into the enduring spirit of a community.Highly recommended.more
"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: 3.0more
Piazza opens with two quotes, one from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which this book is an homage to. Like that American classic, City of Refuge tells of a forced US migration, both through the eyes of those experiencing it, and with journalistic interludes that further fill in the details. I thought I knew what happened there. City of Refuge showed me I hardly knew a thing, and more compellingly, helped explain why.The novel switches between two families, one black, one white, and their experiences during and after the hurricane. I sometimes thought Piazza gave too much detail, and veered into the didactic, problems I also had with Grapes of Wrath. Like that book, though, this is a chronicle of a national tragedy, and the government ineptitude that made things worse. Like that book, City of Refuge is a novel about social justice. It educates, inspires empathy, and fosters outrage. The writing style wasn’t always to my taste, but the scope and power of the story, and the character of SJ in particular, are such that I’d recommend City of Refuge to almost anyone.more
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.more
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.more
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.more
SJ Williams and his family have lived in New Orleans all of their lives. Their roots and ties in the community are very strong. All that SJ has left of his immediate family is his sister Lucy, who has struggled over the years with drug and alcohol dependency, her son and his nephew, Wesley, and a grown daughter who has moved away from New Orleans. Wesley is a teenager, a little lost from growing up amidst the uncertainty of his mother’s lifestyle and love, and chafing at the strict example and path of discipline that his uncle would have him follow. He is struggling to find a place in New Orleans society that is his own and stumbling along the way. SJ lives a strictly regimented life as a way of keeping the haunting demons of war and the death of his wife at bay, his only wish to keep his remaining family in one piece.Craig Donaldson and his wife, Alice, are a couple on the brink of losing it all. Their marriage, and the life in New Orleans which had once been a fulfilling and exciting adventure is crumbling slowly under the weight of festering anger and resentment, exacerbated by the changing visions each has for their family. Even as they are working on their marriage with a counselor, it is an exercise in force of will for them to communicate civilly with each other. Craig is satisfied with the life they have made in New Orleans, he loves the culture, his friends and the environment- he’s also happy enough in his position as editor of a local New Orleans Magazine. Fatigued by frequent hurricane evacuations, Alice is increasing stressed about the violence in the city, their quality of life and the safety of the couple’s two young children, Annie and Malcolm. Both families are at the edge and doing the best they can to hold it together when their lives are further devastated by Katrina.I read Nine Lives: Life and Death in New Orleans, by Dan Baum earlier this year and I was blown away and spent weeks talking it up to my mom and my friends. So when Lisa from TLC Book Tours asked me if I would like to read City of Refuge by Tom Piazza I jumped at the opportunity to read more on the subject of New Orleans and Katrina, and then immediately started to worry that I wouldn’t like the book. Nine Lives is non-fiction, extremely well written, and shed so much light on the culture and workings of New Orleans, both before and after Katrina, that I would know immediately if City of Refuge wasn’t authentic. I worried that the fiction wouldn’t hold up to all my newly learned facts.My fears were groundless because Tom Piazza gets it. He gets New Orleans, he gets fiction, and good dialogue, and intricate and conflicted characters, and lots of other things that made this a wonderfully touching and interesting book, which was very hard to put down. It was also grey! And I love grey in books because it means that I will talk to myself constantly about the characters and what is going on, and what they should have done, and how I love them but they are wrong, or hate them but have to admit that they are right- and I did that with this book right from the beginning! Every time I picked it up I was completely absorbed in the lives and heartaches of these families as they tried to find their way.When a book is really good, sometimes there isn’t much that can be said without, I don’t know, gushing. This is book where the writing is wonderful, rich and intimate, as are the relationships between the characters. You will easily learn a lot about New Orleans’ colorful history and the politics and circumstances which made Katrina in particular so devastating, you will learn about the changing attitudes the people of this country had toward Katrina and the people of New Orleans, and frankly you will learn things that will have never occurred to you before because they are just not within your realm of experience.I have never lived in a place afflicted by large storms, with 55 mph winds, that is in actuality beneath sea level. Who knew that if you can afford it that you book a hotel room outside of town for when you evacuate? It makes sense when you think about it, but the thought never occurred to me, and it’s what people have to do, sometimes several times a season. I’m not even sure if I would be able to swing that. I did know that you have to prepare your windows for when storms come, but who knew that you had to worry about someone stealing the piece of wood that you use to secure your window? That’s what happened to SJ and it’s probably happened to someone else too. There were a lot of little details like that, which contributed to making this story so real. I just loved it. So much work would have to be expended to rebuild in New Orleans and each family had to decide whether it was ultimately the right place for them, and whether they could go back and create a life there. Believe me, you will want to know what they decide.more
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!!!!more
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Reviews

After reading many books regarding New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, I think this is the best to date.Written in novel form, the author obviously loves and understands the culture of New Orleans. Comparing and contrasting two families impacted by Katrina, the reader journeys to the lower ninth ward and the horror of those who could not flee, who, because of government ineptitude were stranded for days without food and water.SJ Williams is a hard working family man. Living in the ninth ward for most of his life, he built the home he owns. Widowed and still grieving, he is able to count the blessings of a sister and nephew. His sister chooses a life of drugs and his nephew is of great concern to SJ as he watches his choices that lead to crime and danger.When Katrina hits, his sister is with him as the water dangerously fills the house, forcing them to flee to the attic. Finding a boat, he takes her to a bridge on higher ground and returns to bravely rescue those stranded and dying.Through SJ we feel the mounting terror as the leeves break and the helplessness in realizing that the infrastructure of NO is, and always has been, inept and corrupt, and necessary life saving assistance isn't going to come in time.In addition, we travel with Craig Donaldson and his family. Of different socioeconomic status, they have transportation and flee New Orleans with thousands of others whose cars are barely chugging along the crowded causeway leading out of the destruction.Both Williams and Donaldson families share the fact that they are scattered and long for any sense of normalcy.Highly recommended!more
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.more
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.more
Wow. This book left me feeling breathless, powerless, and hopeful all at the same time. Piazza writes about Katrina with a reporter's eye, and uses his talent as a novelist to show us the human elements no journalist could ever see. An incredible suckerpunch of a book that's going to sit with me for a long time.more
SJ Williams lives in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. He shares his life with his nephew Wesley and sister Lucy while still grieving for the loss of his wife Rosetta. SJ is a carpenter and takes pride in his home and community – a vibrant neighborhood where everyone knows everyone; where neighbors help neighbors.Craig Donaldson has moved to New Orleans from the Midwest and has settled with his wife and two young children in a desirable neighborhood. Craig works as an editor for an alternative newspaper. On the surface he seems to have it all – but there are deep cracks in his marriage to Alice who wants to leave New Orleans and return to her Midwestern roots; while Craig’s love of New Orleans lies deep within him and the city has come to be a part of who he is.Different in significant ways, not the least the color of their skin (SJ is black, Craig is white)…the two men’s lives will parallel each other when Katrina – a devastating Category Five hurricane – hits New Orleans. Faced with an uncertain future, both men will have to decide to either stay and rebuild, or leave the city they love.Tom Piazza’s novel City of Refuge takes a hard and brutally honest look at one of the most shameful natural disasters in American history through the eyes of two compelling characters. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina brushed New Orleans with its lethal strength and contributed to the failure of the old and poorly constructed levee system. City, State and Federal governments were slow to response to the tragedy. The ineptness of the response played out on the national news with horrifying images of refugees dying in the Superdome, Convention Center and on the streets. Piazza reveals the humanity behind the tragedy in his beautifully written novel. Laced with the flavor of New Orleans, City of Refuge transports the reader to the days before the hurricane and the months following. In an interview printed at the end of the novel, Piazza says:You can’t understand the kind of experience that people in New Orleans went through from an air-conditioned bus. You need to get the mud and the water and the blood all over you. So that was how I approached the material.Piazza is successful in this effort – the scenes immediately following the disaster, seen through SJ’s eyes, are stunning, sad, and horrible. They also generated a certain amount of renewed rage in me for HOW and WHY the disaster played out as it did.In the midst of it, with up and right and green and there and down and left and here and red jabbering incoherently, you did what you could until help arrived, whether you led a child by the hand through the ruined streets, or endured the blazing sidewalk heat in the crowd outside the Convention Center, or sat trapped in a wheelchair in your living room, abandoned by the nurse, as the water crept up around your ankles, and then your knees, praying, knowing that God never sent you nothing that you couldn’t handle, so it must have been someone else sent all that water that rose mercilessly past your lips and nose (they found you later, out of your wheelchair, under your refrigerator, which had floated and come to rest on top of you), or squatted with hundreds of others in the red haze of afternoon amid the other garbage by the side of the empty interstate, waiting for a helicopter, or a bus or a truck waiting for passage up and out to some city of refuge waiting on a strange horizon. – from City of Refuge, page 169 -But City of Refuge is more than just a replaying of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Piazza’s characters are carefully drawn and very human. Their story asks an essential question: What is the definition of home? It is not just a place, but a community, one’s family, and sense of belonging that develops because of the spirit of the people who live there. Many people have wondered: why rebuild New Orleans? And that question is part and parcel of Piazza’s novel. The answer is complex, but Piazza has simplified it. By showing us the people behind the tragedy – their dreams, their families, their hopes for the future – the question turns on itself. Why NOT rebuild?Only a few pages into City of Refuge, I knew I would love this book. Piazza’s writing is honest and deeply empathetic. It is not surprising that New Orleans becomes almost another character in the novel … Piazza not only survived Hurricane Katrina, he continues to reside there. Although the book exposes the horror and sadness of the tragedy – and reveals the desperation of the people who were affected – it is not a depressing novel. Rather, it leaves the reader with hope and a glimpse into the enduring spirit of a community.Highly recommended.more
"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: 3.0more
Piazza opens with two quotes, one from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which this book is an homage to. Like that American classic, City of Refuge tells of a forced US migration, both through the eyes of those experiencing it, and with journalistic interludes that further fill in the details. I thought I knew what happened there. City of Refuge showed me I hardly knew a thing, and more compellingly, helped explain why.The novel switches between two families, one black, one white, and their experiences during and after the hurricane. I sometimes thought Piazza gave too much detail, and veered into the didactic, problems I also had with Grapes of Wrath. Like that book, though, this is a chronicle of a national tragedy, and the government ineptitude that made things worse. Like that book, City of Refuge is a novel about social justice. It educates, inspires empathy, and fosters outrage. The writing style wasn’t always to my taste, but the scope and power of the story, and the character of SJ in particular, are such that I’d recommend City of Refuge to almost anyone.more
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.more
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.more
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.more
SJ Williams and his family have lived in New Orleans all of their lives. Their roots and ties in the community are very strong. All that SJ has left of his immediate family is his sister Lucy, who has struggled over the years with drug and alcohol dependency, her son and his nephew, Wesley, and a grown daughter who has moved away from New Orleans. Wesley is a teenager, a little lost from growing up amidst the uncertainty of his mother’s lifestyle and love, and chafing at the strict example and path of discipline that his uncle would have him follow. He is struggling to find a place in New Orleans society that is his own and stumbling along the way. SJ lives a strictly regimented life as a way of keeping the haunting demons of war and the death of his wife at bay, his only wish to keep his remaining family in one piece.Craig Donaldson and his wife, Alice, are a couple on the brink of losing it all. Their marriage, and the life in New Orleans which had once been a fulfilling and exciting adventure is crumbling slowly under the weight of festering anger and resentment, exacerbated by the changing visions each has for their family. Even as they are working on their marriage with a counselor, it is an exercise in force of will for them to communicate civilly with each other. Craig is satisfied with the life they have made in New Orleans, he loves the culture, his friends and the environment- he’s also happy enough in his position as editor of a local New Orleans Magazine. Fatigued by frequent hurricane evacuations, Alice is increasing stressed about the violence in the city, their quality of life and the safety of the couple’s two young children, Annie and Malcolm. Both families are at the edge and doing the best they can to hold it together when their lives are further devastated by Katrina.I read Nine Lives: Life and Death in New Orleans, by Dan Baum earlier this year and I was blown away and spent weeks talking it up to my mom and my friends. So when Lisa from TLC Book Tours asked me if I would like to read City of Refuge by Tom Piazza I jumped at the opportunity to read more on the subject of New Orleans and Katrina, and then immediately started to worry that I wouldn’t like the book. Nine Lives is non-fiction, extremely well written, and shed so much light on the culture and workings of New Orleans, both before and after Katrina, that I would know immediately if City of Refuge wasn’t authentic. I worried that the fiction wouldn’t hold up to all my newly learned facts.My fears were groundless because Tom Piazza gets it. He gets New Orleans, he gets fiction, and good dialogue, and intricate and conflicted characters, and lots of other things that made this a wonderfully touching and interesting book, which was very hard to put down. It was also grey! And I love grey in books because it means that I will talk to myself constantly about the characters and what is going on, and what they should have done, and how I love them but they are wrong, or hate them but have to admit that they are right- and I did that with this book right from the beginning! Every time I picked it up I was completely absorbed in the lives and heartaches of these families as they tried to find their way.When a book is really good, sometimes there isn’t much that can be said without, I don’t know, gushing. This is book where the writing is wonderful, rich and intimate, as are the relationships between the characters. You will easily learn a lot about New Orleans’ colorful history and the politics and circumstances which made Katrina in particular so devastating, you will learn about the changing attitudes the people of this country had toward Katrina and the people of New Orleans, and frankly you will learn things that will have never occurred to you before because they are just not within your realm of experience.I have never lived in a place afflicted by large storms, with 55 mph winds, that is in actuality beneath sea level. Who knew that if you can afford it that you book a hotel room outside of town for when you evacuate? It makes sense when you think about it, but the thought never occurred to me, and it’s what people have to do, sometimes several times a season. I’m not even sure if I would be able to swing that. I did know that you have to prepare your windows for when storms come, but who knew that you had to worry about someone stealing the piece of wood that you use to secure your window? That’s what happened to SJ and it’s probably happened to someone else too. There were a lot of little details like that, which contributed to making this story so real. I just loved it. So much work would have to be expended to rebuild in New Orleans and each family had to decide whether it was ultimately the right place for them, and whether they could go back and create a life there. Believe me, you will want to know what they decide.more
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!!!!more
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