Every year in New Orleans there’s a Stella and Stanley shouting contest. Contestants vie to rival Marlon Brando’s bellow as Stanley Kowalski pining for his wife in “A Streetcar Named Desire”: “STELLAAAA!” The year after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city and the federal response was pitiful, the winner howled: “FEMA!”
Sarah M. Broom fits this anecdote into her forceful, rolling and many-chambered new memoir, “The Yellow House.” It’s one I’d heard before, but Broom makes it stick. Her memoir isn’t just a Katrina story — it has a lot more on its mind. But the storm and the way it scattered her large family across America give this book both its grease and its gravitas.
Broom, who was born in 1979, is the youngest of 12 children. Her father, Simon, worked in maintenance for NASA in New Orleans and played the banjo and trombone in a jazz band. The family lived way out in New Orleans East, seven miles from the city’s celebrated French Quarter. Broom suggests that New Orleans East, with its junkyards and trailer parks and flagrant prostitution, was a place the rest of the city mostly tried to forget.
This book is dense with characters and stories. It’s a big, simmering pot that comes to a boil at the right times. But the central character may well be the yellow house of the title. It’s a shotgun house that Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, bought in 1961 with insurance money after her first husband’s death. Simon, her second husband, was good with his hands and began to add onto the house.
Simon died when the author was 6 months old, and tended not to finish the projects he started. The house looked respectable on the outside. Inside, things were chaotic. Stairs and walls were unfinished, mere raw framing. There were exposed wires and holes in the floor. Cabinets lacked doors. The plumbing didn’t quite work. Pliers were needed to turn on the bathroom sink. Termites and flying cockroaches were abundant.
“The Yellow House was witness to our lives,” Broom writes, and in most respects the family adored it. But it was a source of deep shame. Outsiders, even close friends, weren’t allowed in to witness the decrepitude. The notion of people seeing how they lived mortified Ivory Mae. She’d raised her kids to be clean and well dressed and to have good manners. The family cut itself off socially.
How much did this house matter to the family? After it was totaled in Katrina and torn down by the city, one of the author’s brothers lingered around the empty lot for years, just to keep the grass cut out of habit and respect.
“New Orleans humidity is a mood,” Broom writes. This book is a mood. It starts slow, with layers of family history. The opening sections impart a sense of someone swinging the prop of an airplane, hoping the engine will fire. The author doesn’t make her first appearance, as a 5-year-old, until we are more than 100 pages in. But trust her. This book more than takes flight.
She chronicles her childhood with all those squabbling older siblings. One brother became a chef. Another was a crack addict who’d sneak into the yellow house to steal the color television. Some family members had lighter skin than others, and this book has a lot to say about the politics of that fact.
“The Yellow House” takes a detour when Broom goes to college in Texas and (this is barely mentioned) gets a master’s in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley. She joins the staff of O Magazine.
After meeting Samantha Power, who would later become the United States ambassador to the United Nations under Barack Obama, at a dinner, Broom moves to Burundi to work in development for a nonprofit radio station. (If a film is made of this memoir, the trailer will feature a shot of Power declaiming, with her decorous Peppermint Patty-meets-Katharine Hepburn avidity, “You must go to Burundi.”)
Broom takes jobs in journalism and travels the globe. She returns to New Orleans in 2008 to work as a speechwriter for the now-disgraced New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin. Unhappy with the city’s progress, she leaves and moves to Harlem. In 2011, she returns again, with the intention of writing this book.
Broom does a masterly job of situating each of her family members as Katrina looms on the horizon. She was in Harlem at the time, watching CNN, feeling helpless. Two of her brothers were out of contact for more than a week. Other family members ended up in Texas, and then California. Would they ever be able to return to New Orleans?
By 2011, Broom has money and a book contract. She takes a nice apartment in the French Quarter and is torn between admiration and bitterness. She has some negative epiphanies. “How had one square mile,” she asks, “come to stand in for an entire city?” She writes that the poorer people from New Orleans East were merely “the supporting players.”
“Much of what is great and praised about the city,” she writes, “comes at the expense of its native black people, who are, more often than not, underemployed, underpaid, sometimes suffocated by the mythology that hides the city’s dysfunction and hopelessness.”
She takes aim at other targets, including some of Joan Didion’s writing about the city and David Simon’s HBO series “Treme,” named after the New Orleans neighborhood. Simon romanticized New Orleans, she writes. His show was “more concerned with trotting out all of the city’s tropes (Hubig’s pies, WWOZ, street musicians, Black Indians!) than with actually examining the ongoing corruption” and other issues.
There is some mildly portentous writing in “The Yellow House,” but for the most part Broom’s prose is alert and inquisitive. If the author remains at a certain distance at the end of this book, if she is somewhat unknowable, well, she’s had many other stories to tell, and to tell well.
This is a major book that I suspect will come to be considered among the essential memoirs of this vexing decade. There are a lot of complicated emotions coursing through its veins. It throws the image of an exceptional American city into dark relief. Like Stanley Kowalski, you will want to holler.