Reader reviews for City of Refuge

"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
Permalink · 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.
Permalink · 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.
Permalink · 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!!!!
Permalink · 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.
Permalink · 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.
Permalink · Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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.
Permalink · Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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.
Permalink · Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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.
Permalink · Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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.
Permalink · Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
scribd