“Remembering is a chair that it is hard to sit still in.” [Hoopla edition, p. 760]
The Yellow House is Sarah Monique Broom’s memoir of growing up in a small, dilapidated house in New Orleans –a house that came to define her family. While they all “knew” without it being discussed that theirs was a house to which no friends could ever be invited, it was their soul.
“…the place I never wanted to claim had, in fact, been containing me… I was now the house.” [p. 788]
When watching Katrina and its aftermath the media often painted a picture of people unwilling to help themselves. They painted a picture of people not very empowered or used to dealing with authority. This book shows that to be a not completely accurate picture. New Orleans was more than just the French Quarter and the hardest hit, often poor, neighborhoods.
Sarah and her large family had the normal sorts of dysfunction to which all families are prey, but in spite of the Yellow House falling down around them, the family was educated and held decent jobs of the sort which anyone would be proud. Sarah’s mother, Ivory Mae was a nursing assistant and seamstress–going back to school to upgrade her skills. Several of her children went to college, another son was a chef in Paul Prudhomme’s famous restaurant, and a sister attended the prestigious Parson’s School of Design in New York another son was the grounds-keeper for the local NASA facility.
These are not “unempowered” people. That the city government was corrupt, morally bankrupt and at times barely functioning, that the local school had stopped educating and that the police verged on being a gang, was not the fault of the family or their neighbors. While this eventually came out in the Katrina coverage, this book made me see even more clearly than at the time just how racially biased the major new networks were in their coverage of Katrina and of the people it affected.
Ivory Mae, Sarah/Monique’s mother, is a true Southern African-American matriarch. She commanded, the family obeyed. When she saw Sarah getting out of line in Middle School, she put her into a private, Conservative Christian school where she was one of a small handful of African American students and made sure she was in church any time the doors were open. It saved Sarah and let her have the career she enjoys today. I admire that mother so much!
Sarah, in spite of attending a private Christian school, received no guidance on choosing a college even though she was an excellent student with excellent test scores. She chose the University of North Texas because a boy she liked was going there. Apparently, either she was not advised on financial aid, or owning the Yellow House was enough to keep her from adequate financial aid in an era when it still existed for she encumbered herself with student loans to pay out-of-state tuition to UNT. She was, however, savvy enough to use the school’s programs to attend semesters at other colleges in New York and New Jersey.
“By the time I was a junior at Word of Faith, I had gained an interiority, a place without strictures where I could live, and that inside space was the room I loved best. High school, for me, boiled down to my desire to leave it for an elsewhere that I did not yet know.” [p. 571]
The quote above is what made me love this book and love Sarah/Monique so much. We are soul-mates. This describes my high school experience perfectly. But it was after this that I felt the book lost its momentum. It is still an outstanding book–but the drive of the story deteriorated. I felt a bit cheated when I read an aside about her attending Berkley for graduate school. That would have been far more interesting to me than Sarah’s end of the book homage to her temporary life in the French Quarter of New Orleans. So too was her Burundi experience a let-down. The typical American experience of rushing in to help and not knowing enough about anything to get anything done. She’d have done more good joining the Peace Corps. I’d like to have heard more, too, about working for Oprah’s magazine–that’s quite a coup of a first (or early) job!
I also admired the role her older brothers played in her life. While some of these men had lost “two Dads”–a father and a loving step-father, they did not hesitate to step in and be a father-figure to their little sister. This, too, belies some of what the media tries to tell us of African American families–though at least one of the brothers did have a scattered family of his own and children with, different mothers, from what was shown in the book he was a true father to all of them. I found the brothers’ and the rest of the families’ post-Katrina lives were given too little attention–the author, or her editor, wanting to focus instead on the more “glamorous” jobs Sarah had earned.
The Yellow House was the first book in years that kept me sitting up reading for hours into the night.This book deserves the hype and the award it won. It will be forever on my list of favorite memoirs even if I had moments of disappointment in the direction the story did and did not go.
[I almost NEVER give 5 stars, fyi]
For More on New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina see:
Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink