One of the most striking moments in Sarah M. Broom’s enthralling memoir, “The Yellow House,” comes near its end. Broom’s indomitable mother, Ivory Mae Broom, was born and raised in New Orleans, as were her 12 children. Broom describes Ivory Mae staying overnight in her daughter’s apartment in the city’s iconic French Quarter: “‘I’m seventy-one,’ she announced from the balcony the day after I moved in. ‘And this is the first time I’m sleeping in the French Quarter.’”
If, like many visitors, you think the French Quarter is New Orleans, Broom has another story to tell you. It is a rich and deep one, not just the story of her own life (although that is a rich enough tale) but the story of several generations of her family and of the city that is indelibly their home, both before and after what Broom calls the Water.
The Water, of course, is Hurricane Katrina, the devastating storm that inundated the city in 2005, and from which it has not fully recovered. The French Quarter had minimal damage, but some neighborhoods, like New Orleans East, the site of the Broom family home that gives the book its title, were all but erased from the map.
New Orleans East, Broom tells us, often didn’t show up on maps of the city even before Katrina. Wedged between the Industrial Canal, the Intracoastal Waterway and Lake Pontchartrain, it’s the newest part of one of the oldest U.S. cities, hopefully promoted as suburbs in the 1960s. Ivory Mae bought her shotgun house on Wilson Avenue in 1961 for $3,200, when she was a 19-year-old widow. (Her first husband was hit by a car as he walked along a road near the Army base where he was stationed.) She had two children and another on the way.
The house needed work; by the time Ivory Mae moved in three years later, she had married her second husband, Simon Broom Sr. Each of them had three children from first marriages, and they would have six together. Sarah is the youngest, born 30 years after her oldest sibling.
She begins the book long before her own arrival, recounting the lives of her siblings, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Throughout the book, that family history is interwoven with the history of New Orleans East, which goes from an integrated suburb to a largely black neighborhood that was already beginning to turn into an industrial district before the Water.
Broom writes lovingly but unsentimentally about her family’s complex relationships. Ivory Mae is for years a devoted stay-at-home mom, a meticulous housekeeper and fine cook who sews all the clothes for her family. Simon works in the maintenance department at the nearby NASA installation and is as devoted to their family as Ivory Mae is.
But six months after Sarah is born, Simon dies at 56 of an aneurysm, leaving Ivory Mae a widow for the second time at 39. Some of her children will go to college, others will go to prison. Over time, the Yellow House she was so proud of will deteriorate, with too little money or time to make repairs.
And then, the Water. By 2005 Broom was living in Harlem, working as a journalist. About half of her family still lived in New Orleans, and most, including Ivory Mae, fled the storm, in three different directions.
But Sarah’s brother Carl would stay in the Yellow House as it drowned, armed with an ax to chop his way out when the attic flooded. He perched on the roof with his two Pekingese dogs, occasionally swimming down the street to check on other stranded residents, until rescuers arrived seven days after the flood.
Broom writes movingly about how her siblings reach out to help each other and their mother, and about the traumas that don’t entirely heal. Their grandmother dies not long after the storm, and few people come to her funeral because the family is unable to put an obituary in the Times-Picayune; they make dozens of phone calls but in the flood’s wake, “the line stayed busy; no one ever answered.”
Broom, too, has a dramatic emotional response, even though she was far away from the storm. She quits her magazine job and goes to Burundi (a sort of African New Orleans East that few Americans can readily locate) to work for a nonprofit for several months.
Then she jumps back into New Orleans with both feet, working as a speechwriter for Mayor Ray Nagin during storm recovery. She ping-pongs back to New York, then to that apartment in the French Quarter, sandwiched between former residences of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, still wrestling with her own identity.
Along the way, Ivory Mae struggles with mountains of paperwork to try to repair and return to her beloved Yellow House, but it will meet a melancholy fate.
Broom’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Oxford American, O magazine and the New York Times Magazine. This memoir is her first book; in November it won the National Book Award for nonfiction.
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“The Yellow House” is the story of a uniquely American family and a uniquely American city, beautifully told.