Regular visitors to this blog know that my reading tastes run mostly to relatively short genre fiction. So why did I read this long, mainstream literary novel about Hurricane Katrina? Because I was asked to review it and host one of the stops on the virtual tour for it and its author, Tom Piazza. And I’m glad I said yes, because CITY OF REFUGE is a fine novel I might have missed otherwise.
Piazza follows two families, one white and one black, picking up their stories several days before Katrina strikes New Orleans, when everyone still believes the storm that’s just entering the Gulf of Mexico will turn east and miss the city. Since this is a literary novel, there’s a lot of characterization and back-story, as well as an amazing amount of detail about New Orleans itself, its culture and the way it works. Piazza writes very well, though, and never loses sight of the main story he’s trying to tell, so the novel never bogs down. One family stays in New Orleans to try to ride out the storm, while the other evacuates, but so late that they’re caught in the mad rush to get out of the city. Piazza follows both stories, letting them unfold in a natural fashion without trying to force them to weave together, as some writers might have done.
Then, once the storm actually hits, CITY OF REFUGE turns into a great adventure novel of danger and survival for the characters who stayed behind, before following up with the aftermath of the hurricane and the lasting effects it has on the characters and on the city itself. Some reviews have compared this novel to John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and I think that’s valid. Both novels are about common people uprooted from their homes by a natural disaster, both are filled with tragedy leavened with a little hope here and there, and both are very well-written. Whether or not CITY OF REFUGE will have the lasting impact of THE GRAPES OF WRATH, time will tell. It certainly has that potential.
CITY OF REFUGE doesn’t get preachy or pretentious, and at its heart, it’s an old-fashioned yarn about people and a place. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it.