Tag Archives: hurricanes

Book Review: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

     rivers   “He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and the sunshine glistened across the drenched land,” Mississippi native Michael Farris Smith writes in Rivers, his riveting new novel of speculative fiction.  In Rivers, Smith imagines a chilling future for the Gulf South, where relentless, Katrina-like storms roll in one after the other.

Although Hurricane Katrina did not hurt the author directly, seeing his state “suffer in that way” deeply affected Smith, he explained during a reading at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.  He originally thought that he wanted to write a Katrina or a post-Katrina novel.  After starting and stopping several times, Smith was unhappy with the direction in which he was heading.  The writing “felt really contrived” to him, and the “last thing” he wanted to do was “cheapen” the tragedy for those who experienced Katrina’s wrath.

Smith could not get the idea of storms out of his mind, however.  “To hell with Katrina,” he decided.  The wheels in Smith’s head slowly began to turn.  “What if after Katrina there came another one like a month later and after that there came another one just a couple weeks later?  And then what if for five or six years we essentially had a Katrina-like storm that never ended in the Gulf?  What would the world look like?”  Smith’s setting suddenly clicked, but he knew he could infuse even more conflict into his place, intensifying the mood and the story.

When Rivers begins, 613 days have passed “since the declaration of the Line, a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border across the Mississippi coast to Alabama.”  Things only got worse “after several years of catastrophic hurricanes and a climate shift,” suggesting “there was an infinite trail of storms to come.”  The “consistency and ferocity of the storms” have not diminished but have instead accelerated.  This is the environment in which Smith plunges his characters and us—dark, elegiac, primeval, and utterly compelling.

With the stage for his conflict set, the author needed a main character.  Smith kept seeing “an image of a guy waking up in the middle of the night on family land outside of Gulfport after he’s been trying to live down there through all this, and he goes outside…gets on his horse, [and] splashes around to see what’s going on.”

That man is Cohen, a pragmatic Southern stalwart who stays in his home despite ruthless weather, anarchy, and violence.  The federal government got out of Dodge long ago, but not Cohen.  He insists on staying not because of stubbornness but because he possesses mile-wide streaks of idealism and sentimentality.  These traits, along with his memories, keep him from living a life north of the line.

Two recollections especially mark Cohen.  The first is the tragedy that befalls Cohen and his wife, Elisa, as they attempt to evacuate the coast during a maelstrom.  Smith writes, “On the asphalt of Highway 49, underneath an eighteen-wheeler, surrounded by screams of those who were running for it as they had all seen them coming, the handful of tornadoes breaking free from the still black clouds, like snakes slithering down from the sky, moving toward the hundreds, thousands of gridlocked cars that were only trying to do what they had been told to do.”  As the tornadoes close in on the couple and explode “through the bodies and the cars and the trucks, metal and flesh” fly in all directions.  Cohen, powerless at that moment, can only watch as his wife and unborn daughter die, a scene that makes for emotional reading.  The other memory from which Cohen cannot escape and returns to time and again throughout the narrative is his reminiscence of a vacation he and Elisa once took to Venice, Italy.  One cannot help but compare Venice, the floating city, to New Orleans, itself a precarious metropolis that features into the story.  These vignettes offer greater insight into Cohen’s mindset.

If Cohen leaves the coast, he fears he will desert Elisa, his birthplace, and even a part of himself.  With a horse named Habana and a dog as his only companions, Cohen trudges across a dark and stormy landscape and struggles to hold onto a past that is getting harder and harder to cling to as the last vestiges of the old world crumble around him.  Practicality and romanticism are at war inside Cohen, which Smith ably demonstrates in the story.  Cohen knows his home is forever altered; he knows that to stay is a lost cause; he knows there is nothing left for him.  But he cannot do it—he cannot leave.  Smith envisaged Cohen, an extremely intricate and layered personality, so complex, intriguing, and damaged, and rendered him perfectly.

The author peoples Rivers with equally strong minor characters—Mariposa, a haunted young woman from New Orleans; Charlie, an old friend of Cohen’s family who is the go-to guy on the coast; Aggie, a man who lures women and men to his compound for his own nefarious purposes; and Evan and Brisco, brothers who have only each other.

When something unforeseen and unwelcome happens to Cohen, he is right in the thick of things and must decide, once and for all, if michael farris smithhe will be a man of action or inaction.  Cohen may be an unlikely hero, but we all are really.  Heroism is thrust upon him, just as it is forced upon so many ordinary people in extraordinary times.  Smith takes Cohen on multiple odysseys in Rivers, fully developing his main character and binding him to us.  I believe Cohen will appeal to readers because he is an Everyman type of figure, relatable, likeable, and sympathetic.  He is the sort of guy you would see at the local football game on Friday nights, barbequing on weekends with a beer in one hand, and driving his old Chevy around town.

If you enjoyed Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Cormac McCarthy’s works, you will surely appreciate Smith’s clarity, vision, and voice.  Rivers, as Smith tells me, “is about redemption” and “survival both emotionally and physically,” universal themes we can all understand.  Perhaps that is why Rivers struck such a chord with me.  The gloomy, sinister future of which the author writes is not implausible but wholly possible and therefore terrifying.

If Rivers is made into a movie (Please God), I’d love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen, Billy Bob Thornton as Charlie, and America Ferriera as Mariposa.

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Spotlight on Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Coming September 10 from Simon & Schuster

It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.

About The Book:
riversFollowing years of catastrophic hurricanes, the Gulf Coast—stretching from the Florida panhandle to the western Louisiana border—has been brought to its knees. The region is so punished and depleted that the government has drawn a new boundary ninety miles north of the coastline. Life below the Line offers no services, no electricity, and no resources, and those who stay behind live by their own rules.

Cohen is one who stayed. Unable to overcome the crushing loss of his wife and unborn child who were killed during an evacuation, he returned home to Mississippi to bury them on family land. Until now he hasn’t had the strength to leave them behind, even to save himself.

But after his home is ransacked and all of his carefully accumulated supplies stolen, Cohen is finally forced from his shelter. On the road north, he encounters a colony of survivors led by a fanatical, snake-handling preacher named Aggie who has dangerous visions of repopulating the barren region.

Realizing what’s in store for the women Aggie is holding against their will, Cohen is faced with a decision: continue to the Line alone, or try to shepherd the madman’s captives across the unforgiving land with the biggest hurricane yet bearing down—and Cohen harboring a secret that may pose the greatest threat of all.

Eerily prophetic in its depiction of a southern landscape ravaged by extreme weather, Rivers is a masterful tale of survival and redemption in a world where the next devastating storm is never far behind.

About The Author:

Michael Farris Smith’s new novel, RIVERS, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in September 2013. RIVERS transforms the michael farris smithMississippi Gulf Coast into a lawless, abandoned region following years of devastating hurricanes. His 2011 Paris novella, “The Hands of Strangers,” has been praised as a “fantastic debut” by Publisher’s Weekly. He is a native Mississippian who has lived in France and Switzerland and has been awarded the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship and the Transatlantic Review Award for Fiction. 

Bookmagnet Says:
It’s fitting that Michael Farris Smith’s riveting novel Rivers comes out smack-dab in the middle of hurricane season.  Rivers will leave you chilled, gasping, and shaken to the core.  The author gives readers so much to ponder: could this be our future? Some things are no-brainers: you will never be able to get Cohen or the irrevocably altered landscape of the Gulf South out of your mind.

 

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Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel (Harper Collins; 320 pages; $25.99).

Description:

sea creaturesWhen Georgia returns to her hometown of Miami, her toddler son and husband in tow, she is hoping for a fresh start. They have left Illinois trailing scandal and disappointment in their wake: Graham’s sleep disorder has cost him his tenure at Northwestern; Georgia’s college advising business has gone belly up; and three-year old Frankie is no longer speaking. Miami feels emptier without Georgia’s mother, who died five years earlier, but her father and stepmother offer a warm welcome-as well as a slip for the dilapidated houseboat Georgia and Graham have chosen to call home. And a position studying extreme weather patterns at a prestigious marine research facility offers Graham a professional second chance.

When Georgia takes a job as an errand runner for an artist who lives alone in the middle of Biscayne Bay, she’s surprised to find her life changes dramatically. Time spent with the intense hermit at his isolated home might help Frankie gain the courage to speak, it seems. And it might help Georgia reconcile the woman she was with the woman she has become.

But when Graham leaves to work on a ship in Hurricane Alley and the truth behind Frankie’s mutism is uncovered, the family’s challenges return, more complicated than before. Late that summer, as a hurricane bears down on South Florida, Georgia must face the fact that her choices have put her only child in grave danger.

My Thoughts

Graham, Georgia, and their son Frankie moved to South Florida to escape their many troubles in Susanna Daniel’s new novel Sea Creatures, but their problems had a way of tagging along.  Georgia, Daniel’s main character and sole narrator, was a protagonist I not only liked but with whom I sympathized and empathized.  I put myself in her place and understood the great weight she carried on her thin shoulders.  I absolutely hated Graham, Georgia’s husband, who suffered from parasomnia, a condition in which he experienced erratic sleep patterns.  He sometimes sleepwalked.  “Sleep was the yardstick by which all other fears were measured, and everything else dwarfed.  It’s the stuff of horror films, sleep terror, but the sleep goblins of film are imaginary.  Graham’s problems were real, and all the more alarming for their unpredictability.”

SeaCreatures_3DBookshot

Despite having parasomnia, Graham scoffed at his son Frankie’s selective mutism.  This, I must confess, was the ultimate of his transgressions for me.  Graham seemed to want Frankie to be “normal,” when Graham himself had medical problems.

Daniel expertly underscored how parenthood can change a marriage.  Georgia just could not understand her husband’s mindset, “Sometimes I thought that in becoming a parent, I’d morphed into an entirely different person, while he’d remained exactly the same person he’d always been.”  As Daniel’s tale progressed, husband and wife only withdrew farther and farther away from each other.

Georgia and Frankie, though, grew even closer.  Frankie stole my heart time and again in this novel.  “Just as he’d started to speak words, he’d stopped…[The doctors] quizzed me about my marriage and about Graham and his parasomnia, which led me to understand that children in difficult homes sometimes go mute….”  Frankie finally found his voice thanks to Charlie the hermit.

I loved the transformation in which Charlie’s character underwent.  Like Frankie, he discovered a part of himself that had been closed off for years.  Sea Creatures came to dazzling and vivid life whenever Georgia and Frankie visited Charlie in Stiltsville.  Those passages just hummed with energy.

683af41910938771f187ff55921f44d6I could not help but hope that Georgia and Charlie would develop a lasting romance.  Of course, I also hoped she would give Graham the boot.   Everything comes to a shuddering climax as Hurricane Andrew approaches South Florida, lending a threatening, uncertain atmosphere to the story: “The course of a life will shift—really shift—many times over the years.  But rarely will there be a shift that you can feel gathering in the distance like a storm, rarely will you notice the pressure drop before the skies open.”  Indeed, the hurricane heralded a new chapter for Daniel’s characters.  For them, everything changed.  Just as residents of South Florida cleaned up after the storm, the people in Daniel’s novel must pick up the pieces of their tattered and torn lives.

Thus, Daniel adeptly weaved together various conflicts throughout her narrative, cleverly moving from man against man to man against himself to man against nature.  The plot of Sea Creatures expertly revolved around these struggles.

All in all, Daniel’s second book was an absorbing, lyrical journey.  Sea Creatures left me spellbound, sleepless, speechless, and completely oblivious to the rest of the world.

He said, “Some people go to sea, and they drown.”

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Interview with Sherri L. Smith, Author of Orleans

Sherri L. Smith

Sherri L. Smith

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Sherri, for letting me ask you these questions.  Orleans blew me away!

 

Sherri L. Smith: Thanks, Jaime!  Coming from an avid reader, that means a lot!

 

JB: You have worked in film, animation, comic books, and construction.  What made you want to write novels?

 

SLS: Long before I did any of the above, I was a writer.  I’ve been an avid reader my whole life and started writing poetry and short stories in elementary school.  As a kid, I was always awed by novels—it was incredible to me that the author could hold an entire universe in his or her head.  Ever since then, I wanted to learn how to do it, too.

 

JB: You previously wrote FlygirlHot, Sour, Salty, SweetSparrow; and Lucy the Giant.  Orleans is so different from your other novels.  What made you want to explore dystopian and speculative fiction?

 

SLS: Again, blame my childhood.  I was a big fan of fantasy and science fiction growing up—give me Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Terry Brooks, Michael Moorcock or Frank Herbert, etc. and I was happy.  In fact, it was rather a shock to discover my first novel (Lucy the Giant) was contemporary.  I had to give myself a good hard look in the mirror and ask what the heck I thought I was doing.  But I loved the story and it worked.  From then on I decided I would just write what I loved, regardless of genre, and that’s what I’ve done.

 

JB: How did you come up with the idea behind Orleans?

 

SLS: I got the idea for Orleans from my family’s experience with Katrina.  At the time, the idea was born out of two things: an article I read about street gangs protecting their neighborhoods when the cops had all fled, and race issues that seemed to be part of the whole Katrina catastrophe.   It made me wonder: what if race wasn’t an issue?  What differences would separate people then?  What if it wasn’t something you could see?  I decided blood was an interesting answer.  And then, one day on the drive home, Fen popped into my head and started talking to me.  The street gangs became blood tribes, and it wasn’t long before Orleans was born.

 

JB: What kind of research did you do for Orleans?

 

SLS: I bought maps of the city, talked to doctors and scientists, read a lot of environmental studies and articles about hurricanes.  I researched blood types and the history of New Orleans, religious groups, and field medicine.  I watched movies about post-disaster worlds, read books, and studied knife fights in movies and books.  It really ran the gamut!

 

 

JB: One of the astounding things about Orleans is how you build a singular world, unlike anything anybody’s written before, and you do it all in one novel where Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and Ally Condie need three books to fully achieve that effect.  How did you invent this wildly imaginative world?

 

SLS: That’s a huge compliment, so thank you from the bottom of my writerly heart.  I imagine that Collins, Roth and Condie knew the width and breadth of their worlds before they finished the first book, though.  The great thing about world building is, once it’s built, you can keep going back!

 

As for how I approached it, brick by brick is the short answer.  The long answer is—have you ever read Dune by Frank Herbert?  There are appendices at the end of the novel that detail the ecology of the planet.  I remember reading that as a kid and thinking, “Wow, he really made the world!”  It seemed insane, but it worked.  I had a teacher once tell me you had to create the entire room, even if you only wrote about one corner of it.  I think that’s true for all writing, but especially for speculative fiction.  With that in mind, when I started writing I actually made a notebook with tabs for religion, weather, food, tribes, disease, etc.  It was my own Dune appendix.  However, unlike Frank Herbert, I got bored with cataloging and decided to get on with the writing.  So, I didn’t refer to the notebook as much as I thought I would, but any time I lost track of things, it was my touchstone and a good place to daydream new ideas.

 

The ideas themselves came from—extrapolation.  I thought of New Orleans as I knew it and imagined what would change.  There are incredible time lapse maps of the flooding in the city during Katrina, and forecast maps for the Gulf shoreline in years to come.  Those all went into the kitty.  I sat down with a couple of doctors, and grilled my biology teacher friend and her scientist sister for details when creating Delta Fever and the DF Virus.  I saw a hut on stilts outside of Seattle, and the Church of the Rising Son was born.

 

JB: In Orleans, “tribe is life.”  Classifying someone by race no longer exists in Orleans.  It’s now all about blood type, all because of a horrible disease.  How did you come up with Delta Fever?

 

SLS: I knew I wanted a disease that would force separation by blood type.  I called a doctor friend of mine and she introduced me to a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Noah Federman, who walked me through the possibilities.  I basically told him what I needed the Fever to do, and he told me what diseases existed that were similar and how they would manifest.  I then talked to a friend who teaches biology and her sister, who is a research scientist.  They taught me how to destroy viruses and how I might try to create a cure.  Any science that works is owed to the three of them.  The rest is my crazy imagination.

 

JB: Do you have a favorite character in Orleans?  If so, please share.

 

SLS: Fen.  Hands down.  I just think she’s so cool.

 

JB: Perfect lead-in for this question: your main female character is named Fen de la Guerre.  “Guerre” is similar to “guerilla” fighter.  What made you choose this name?  And what came first—the character or her name?

 

SLS: The character came first.  Her voice popped into my head.  The name followed shortly thereafter.  I wanted something that conjured the swamps and bayous in the Delta.  A fen is a type of wetland.  It also reminded me of Fern, the little girl in Charlotte’s Web, which was my favorite book growing up.   “De la Guerre” is French for “of war.”  Orleans is constantly at war, so that made sense.  Lastly, “Fen” also sounds like the French “fin” or “end.”  I liked the idea that she would be a game changer for Orleans.

 

 

JB: It was so refreshing how you do not have the two protagonists falling in love, like so many other YA novels do.  What stopped you from doing that in Orleans?

 

SLS: To quote Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, “No time for love, Dr. Jones!”  Orleans is an incredibly dangerous place and Fen is working on a timeline.  The idea of stopping in the middle of it to make googly eyes at someone was out of the question, especially for someone as no nonsense as Fen.  Thanks to Delta Fever, romance is also a liability in Orleans.  There is no room for a Romeo and Juliet situation—you fall in love with the wrong tribe, one of you dies.  You get pregnant, your blood volume goes up and your value as a blood slave does, too.  Not to mention it slows you down in a fight.  Fen actually loves quite fiercely in this novel.  It’s just not about romance.

 

 

JB: One scene in Orleans, for me, is one I’ll always think of when I see the book or hear about it.  It’s the scene where Fen and Daniel are in what remains of the Garden District and see a curious ritual from a window of a house in which they are resting.  It happens on November 1, All Saints’ Day and also the traditional end of hurricane season.  Can you tell us about this scene?  And what inspired it?

 

SLS: Ah.  This is the scene of the All Saint’s Krewe.  Mardi Gras, which takes place in the early part of the year, is famous for its parades led by organizations called “krewes.”  The first krewes were young men in 19th century New Orleans who rode around on horses while wearing masks and holding torches, or flambeaux, in the air.  I know this sounds disturbingly like a lynch mob, but it was meant to be a celebration.  Or, more likely, it was a group of wild partiers, the 19th century equivalent of a frat party, and they hid their faces so their families wouldn’t know about their hooliganism.  At any rate, the tradition stuck and transformed into the Mardi Gras mask and the krewe parade.

 

I liked the idea that this tradition would continue to evolve in Orleans, or rather devolve to its original state.  The opening image of the novel is a man playing a saxophone on the levee as a storm threatens the city.  That image came from news footage I saw at the time.  I decided the krewes would carry on that laissez faire attitude that New Orleans is so famous for by celebrating the end of hurricane season.  The parade is as an act of defiance against nature, where people of all tribes come together anonymously.

 

In the scene, Fen wakes Daniel to see the krewe ride in a hurricane-shaped spiral reciting the names of the storms that destroyed New Orleans, and then shouting—Nous sommes ici!  We are here!  We are still here!

More about that scene from my book review:

The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.”  They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.”  Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo.  Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”

As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster.  As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be.  This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new.  No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.

In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget.   This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.

 

JB: Did you ever think of turning Orleans into a trilogy?

 

SLS: Yes, certainly.  Once you’ve built the world, why not go back?  Although I think there’s a lot more to see in this universe than just the city of Orleans…

 

JB: Interesting!  Why do you think YA dystopian/apocalyptic fiction is so popular?

 

SLS: I think it has something to do with war.  We’ve been at war for over a decade and that takes its toll on a society.  From terrorist acts to man-made and natural disasters, it’s got people wondering how they will survive.  Speculative fiction has always been good at mulling over those questions and answers.  It can be a comfort to read a book and say, “Ah, there is life after this disaster.  This is how you do it.”

 

JB: In your book, the United States as we know it today no longer exists.  Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas have been quarantined and are no longer part of the Union.  The great city of New Orleans is surrounded by a wall.  Do you think a catastrophe of this magnitude could happen in our country?

 

SLS: In fact, the Wall runs from Florida to Texas, amputating a vital part of the country.  It seems crazy but, truly, in the first week after Katrina, it didn’t sound so farfetched.  There was talk of abandoning the city, moving inland.  In fact, I remember reading a report.  I think it was in the New Orleans Times-Picayune back in the late 1980s or early 1990s that postulated the need to abandon the city in the face of a major hurricane.  The report proposed building a wall around the French Quarter to protect it for posterity.  Apparently, the rest of the city was considered a reasonable loss.  I remember reading that in my grandparent’s kitchen and thinking, “But… that’s us!”

 

JB: I know that Hurricane Katrina affected your mother and you.  How did that experience provide the impetus to write Orleans?

 

SLS: My mom grew up in New Orleans and weathered the storm there.  It was a couple of days before we realized she was trapped down there and things were falling apart fast.  I hadn’t thought of it until recently, but, in a lot of ways, Fen’s journey to get Baby Girl out of Orleans mirrors my attempts to get my mom out of New Orleans.  It’s important to me to keep New Orleans in people’s thoughts through my writing.  We tend to think “the storm is over, everything is fine.”  But, as anyone who has ever had to rebuild after a disaster knows, it’s far from over and the effects last for years.  Orleans is about that aftermath.

 

 

JB: With each hurricane or even strong tropical storm that hits the New Orleans area, flooding seems worse.  With the marshes disappearing, how likely do you think it is that the city could be underwater in 40, 50, or 100 years?

 

SLS: I don’t even want to speculate about that.  Anything can happen, as Katrina proved.  As much as the fading wetlands were an issue with storm surge, it was manmade channels and levees that led to the bulk of the damage in the city.  Not to diminish the threat, but they’ve been talking about Venice, Italy, sinking for decades and it’s still standing.  A little low in the water, maybe, but it’s there.  Hopefully the storms we’ve had recently will be a wake-up call and steps will be taken to protect our land.

 

JB: As a writer, who has influenced you the most?

 

SLS: Too many people to mention.  I’ll say my mother because she always encouraged me to keep with it.  She never doubted I could publish if I tried.

 

JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?

 

SLS: I think I already mentioned Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.  I love Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little, too, a though that last one was a bit weird because his parents were human and it kind of threw me. I’m a fan of Susan Cooper.  I love her Dark Is Rising series.  I’ve already mentioned Dune.  I’ve come to appreciate Ernest Hemingway.  I admire Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ability to make her stories sound like truth.  David Eddings, Laurie R. King, Lloyd Alexander, Kage Baker, Olivia Butler—I’m looking at my bookcase, but it’s only one of 11 in the house!

 

JB: You really are an avid reader!  What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

 

SLS: I like to read.  Is that obvious?  I also like travel, bake, eat, sleep, watch movies.  I like to dance and make stuff with my hands.  I watch a lot of cooking shows and make up songs that I sing to my cat, because she’s the only one who tolerates it on a regular basis.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Orleans?

 

SLS: That’s a good question.  I hope they recognize how precious the world we live in really is, and do what they can to protect it.  Whether that means putting together a “go bag” disaster kit, volunteering in an area that needs help, or taking steps to protect the environment, I’m happy.  Heck, if it means everyone goes to New Orleans and supports the city with their visit, that would be grand too.  Even if they just think about it and talk about the book with other people, it would mean I reached them somehow.  And that’s all any writer can ever hope.

 

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

 

SLS: I am currently working on my first fantasy!  It’s an historical fantasy based on the Nutcracker.  I’m also genre-dabbling in mystery and noir.  I want to try everything, so that’s what I’m going to do!

 

JB: Thanks, Sherri, for a wonderful interview!  Good luck with the book.

 

SLS: Thank you, Jaime.  It was a lot of fun.

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Book Review: Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Orleans by Sherri L. Smith (Putnam Juvenile; 336 pages; $17.99).

            Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo, Olga, Laura, Paloma, and Jesus are the names of a series of hurricanes that hit the New Orleans area from 2005 to 2019, killing thousands and thousands of people, flooding the city, and eventually giving rise to the Delta Fever.  No, this is not a prediction orleans1.jpgof the future but the terrifying plot of Sherri L. Smith’s young adult dystopian novel OrleansOrleans is speculative fiction that disturbs, fascinates, and leaves us with much to ponder.

Smith sets her story in 2056 Orleans, no longer New Orleans, but a virtually unrecognizable world characterized by devastation, lawlessness, disease, death, and obstructed by a high wall.  The remnants of the Big Easy are cut off from the rest of the United States, and they are not alone.

In 2020, FEMA quarantined any state affected by the Delta Fever.  In 2025, the United States formally withdrew its governance from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, permanently altering the nation’s landscape and sending the economy into a tailspin.  The United States is now called the Outer States.

You guessed it, Toto.  We aren’t in the New Orleans as we know it.  Nor are in the America as we know it today.

Smith stakes out new territory in this story.  Not only is Orleans an original tale it’s also a courageous one.  And, for Smith, it is personal: Her mother was among those affected by Katrina.  Chilling and wholly plausible, Smith immerses readers deep inside Orleans, and her characters matter deeply to us.

Using a dual narrative format, Smith narrates her tale from the perspective of her two protagonists: Fen de la Guerre and Daniel Weaver.

Fen, a teenage girl with a mysterious past, finds her world irrevocably altered when her mentor, Lydia, dies while giving birth.  Before Lydia dies, she entrusts her child to Fen’s care.

In Orleans, race no longer matters.  “Tribe is life,” and one’s blood type determines his or her tribe.  Fen is an O-Positive, or “OP.”  The baby is an O-Neg, which is problematic.

Delta Fever affects people in different ways according to blood type.  Those with AB blood type suffer the worst from the virus.  “O types don’t be needing transfusions like ABs do.  The Fever be in us, but it ain’t eating O blood up from the inside like it do other types.”

ABs hunt down people with O blood type, especially O negative.  A transfusion using O blood, the universal donor, allows a person with AB to temporarily replenish his supply of red blood cells.

The ABs’ need for blood is eerily similar to that of vampires.  Fen struggles to get the baby to a safe place, far away from Orleans, before the ABs hunt down them both.  As her name suggests, Fen de la Guerre is a fighter.

Daniel is a researcher and scientist from the Outer States whose brother, Charlie, contracted Delta Fever and died “before his eleventh birthday.”  His brother’s death compelled Daniel to work to find a potential cure for the fever.

He bioengineers “a new virus with one purpose—to attack Delta Fever in the bloodstream.”  Daniel creates an “even deadlier strain of the disease.”  Daniel’s virus is a weapon, “a time bomb” that only kills those with the Delta Fever, which includes “every inhabitant of the Delta Coast.”

Through Daniel, Smith shows us what life is like in the former United States, and the picture he paints is far from pretty.  The problems of the Outer States, though, pale in comparison to what happens in Orleans.  The Big Easy has some big problems, as you have probably already ascertained.

When Fen and Daniel meet, the real fun begins.  Fen and Daniel strike a bargain and navigate the bayous and menacing thoroughfares of Orleans together.  Smith takes readers on a wild ride as we accompany Fen and Daniel throughout the dangerous world of Orleans.

There is such authenticity within the pages of Orleans.  Fen speaks in dialect, using “be” in place of “am” and “are.”  For example, “We be near the Market,” Smith writes, “where the old levee used to be, across from St. Louis Cathedral.”  This may be jarring for some, at least initially, but one quickly becomes accustomed to Fen’s distinctive voice.  Many people in New Orleans and in the bayous (and elsewhere in the US) use this kind of discourse today.

If you’ve ever traveled to New Orleans, there are certain landmarks that are permanently fixed in your memory: the Superdome, the French Market, the Ursuline convent, and St. Louis Cathedral, just to name a few.  These all figure prominently in the story.  As does some old Mardi Gras and Catholic traditions.  The most fascinating of which is a ritual Orleanians adhere to on November 1, All Saints’ Day, and the last day of hurricane season, when all tribes come together on horseback wearing old Mardi Gras apparel to disguise their identities.

The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.”  They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.”  Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo.  Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”

As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster.  As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be.  This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new.  No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.

In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget.   This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.

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Spotlight on Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

I love good dystopian YA literature.  Today is the publication day for Sherri L. Smith’s new young adult novel, Orleans.  I am on chapter five and am deeply immersed in Smith’s harrowing and utterly fascinating world.

orleans

 

I was hooked from the beginning, when a series of devastating hurricanes wreaks havoc on the Big Easy.

“After the storm deaths came other casualties: deaths by debris, cuts, tetanus, or loss of blood; suicide; heart attacks caused by stress of loss, or stress of rebuilding, or just as often from the lack of medicines used to treat common ailments.  The list of no-longer-treatable diseases grew: diabetes, asthma, cancer.  Domestic violence rose, along with murder.

Then came the Fever.

And the Quarantine.”

About the book

The following summary is from Goodreads:

After a string of devastating hurricanes and a severe outbreak of Delta Fever, the Gulf Coast has been quarantined. Years later, residents of the Outer States are under the assumption that life in the Delta is all but extinct… but in reality, a new primitive society has been born.

Fen de la Guerre is living with the O-Positive blood tribe in the Delta when they are ambushed. Left with her tribe leader’s newborn, Fen is determined to get the baby to a better life over the wall before her blood becomes tainted. Fen meets Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States who has snuck into the Delta illegally. Brought together by chance, kept together by danger, Fen and Daniel navigate the wasteland of Orleans. In the end, they are each other’s last hope for survival.

Sherri L. Smith delivers an expertly crafted story about a fierce heroine whose powerful voice and firm determination will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

About the author

The following information comes from Smith’s website:

Sherri L. Smith’s life can best be summed up geographically. Born in Chicago, IL, she spent her childhood in Staten Island, NY, Washington D.C., and Upstate New York. Her parents divorced when she was twelve. A year later, she moved back to Chicago with her mother and big brother. After high school, it was off to New York City for college, San Francisco for graduate school, and then Los Angeles, to make movies.

Sherri has worked in film, animation, comic books and construction. Film highlights include Tim Burton’s MARS ATTACKS!, where she worked in stop-motion animation -a truly cool art form. Sherri also worked for three years at Disney TV Animation, helping to create stories for animated home video projects.

After leaving Disney, Sherri found an unlikely home with a construction company, working in a triple-wide trailer on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport. From there she spent nine hilarious years working at Bongo Comics, the company that brings you THE SIMPSONS in print. Currently, Sherri happily spends her days writing novels and visiting her readers in schools and libraries across the country.

She lives in Los Angeles with the love of her life, and is currently working on her next book.

Smith

 

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Book Review: The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black

The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black (Nan A. Talese; 288 pages; $25).

the drowning house

“If there was a sign, I missed it” begins Elizabeth Black’s highly publicized debut, The Drowning House. Yea, if there was a sticker on the front of this book proclaiming it tired and tedious, I, too, missed it.

Photographer Clare Porterfield has suffered a huge blow, and her hometown of Galveston has called her home. Clare battles some tough inner demons, as she grapples with her daughter’s death, a freak accident in the family backyard. She blames herself; strangely, she also blames her daughter, too eager to recreate the famous photo her mother took of her. With her marriage in shambles, Clare intends to put her heart and soul into her next project: directing an exhibition in Galveston, a place she has avoided for ten years.

She begins a monotonous search for her childhood friend, Patrick Carraday. Black drags out Clare’s pursuit so much that I began to doubt his existence entirely. Through Clare’s reminiscences of Patrick, it becomes clear they were playing with fire, literally, and were forced apart after a tragic accident.

Accidents seem to follow Clare around. So do family secrets. She does not share close relationships with either her mother or her sister. Her deceased father treated her with scorn and often stood outside her door as a child. There is an undercurrent of sexual abuse here, but Black holds back when she should have fleshed out this issue.

Clare cannot take command of the page. She is Black’s main protagonist, yet she pales in comparison to Stella Carraday, a beautiful young woman who drowned in her family’s home during the Great Hurricane of 1900. Local lore has made the story legendary: “Stella had been only seventeen when she drowned…So many strange things were said to have been discovered in the aftermath of the storm. A horse, thirsty and disoriented in a second-floor bedroom. Dead snakes dangling from the trees.” Stella was supposedly found naked, hanging by her long hair from a chandelier, “the storm waters tore the clothes off most of the drowned.”

Stella’s intriguing story is interspersed throughout The Drowning House, but Black would have done well to have turned the tale into a dual narrative. I found Stella’s scenes far more interesting than Clare’s, especially once Black suggested Stella may actually have survived the storm. Stella’s character presented an intriguing element, and Black may have been able to save this novel by embellishing this unique individual.

Despite all this discussion of what Black gets wrong, she does do a few things right. Black truly transports the reader to early 1990s Galveston and illustrates the great beauty of the island. “The sky was gulf blue, a color you see nowhere else, intense and full of light, a color that throws ordinary things into sharp relief and turns them into sudden visions.” The smells of oleander and of salty air and the stories of hurricane legends provides an atmospheric quality to the story.

The Drowning House is utterly haunting in its descriptions of the Great Hurricane of 1900. Black somehow manages to show the gaping wounds the storm left on the island ninety years after its impact. Hurricanes alter landscapes; storms erode sand dunes and devastate families. Black does not let the Great Hurricane of 1900 destroy Stella’s story, though, and, for me, that was why I kept reading this book. Too bad Black chose to write Stella as an afterthought; she deserved more, her character cried out for it.

Wonderful atmospheric qualities notwithstanding, The Drowning House is a disappointment. Black’s storyline is too uneven, too unpolished. As a reader, I felt strung along and kept waiting for something more, for something better. Sadly, I never got it, but still I continued reading. I would have turned back, but missed the signs.

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Book Review: The Woman at the Light by Joanna Brady

The Woman at the Light by Joanna Brady (St. Martin’s Griffin; 352 pages; $14.99)

 

            Lighthouses have always fascinated me.  Each has its own unique beauty and history, and all were designed to steer mariners from cliffs, shoals, reefs, and shorelines in fog and at night.  Nowadays, lighthouses do not have keepers, as they once did, because the lights are automated.  But that was not always the case.  Tending lights was a difficult job.  Anyone who has ever climbed the steps of a lighthouse knows this.  Just imagine climbing those steps four or five times a day!

My fascination with lighthouses compelled me to read Joanna Brady’s novel The Woman at the Light.  I had very mixed feelings about this book.  It is not well written, but I was prepared to overlook this fact.  The main character vacillated between action and inaction, yet she was the novel’s most interesting and central figure.  At times, the writing was awkward and I did find an anachronism.  Yet, Brady delivers an early history of Key West, Florida, that I found absorbing and captivating.  Furthermore, she peoples the story with real women who were in charge of keeping the lights.  Brady wrote The Woman at the Light because of them.

Emily Lowry is Brady’s main character.  The story is actually a flashback as the elderly Emily looks back on her life.  Although she discusses her early life in New Orleans, she concentrates on the 1830s and 1840s after she married Martin. Martin lives in Key West, and he takes Emily there to live.  Eventually, he becomes a lighthouse keeper at a fictional light on Wreckers’ Cay.  Their life, though far from idyllic, fulfills Emily, and she busies herself with raising three children and aiding her husband in his duties.  One day, though, Martin does not come home.  He is lost at sea.

Denial sets in for Emily.  She will not let herself accept that her husband is dead, especially when a body never washes up on shore.  Emily is faced with not only raising three children alone but with also tending the light alone.  This is no easy task.

Then, an escaped slave turns up on the island.  Emily initially worries for her children’s and for her own well-being.  However, Andrew soon wins her over by helping out with the light.  Emily is grateful.  Soon, Emily and Andrew engage in a romantic relationship.

Interestingly, Andrew introduces Emily to cannabis.  Such a thing is plausible.  Although the cannabis plant is not native to Africa, Arabs introduced the weed to Africans and its use spread quickly.  African slaves brought their knowledge of the drug to the Americas.  In fact, in sixteenth century Brazil, Angolan slaves were allowed to plant cannabis between rows of sugarcane and smoke it between harvests.

Brady uses the cannabis to break down barriers between Emily and Andrew.  At first, she only yields to him under the influence of the weed.  The drug lowers her inhibitions.  I could not help but wonder if the two would have ever gotten together without the cannabis.  Emily’s family owns slaves.  Emily herself makes a note of how light-skinned Andrew is, leading me to wonder what would have transpired if he had been darker.  Theirs was a relationship I needed more convincing to believe.

After Andrew’s arrival, Emily’s reputation as a lighthouse keeper explodes.  She is lauded with praise.  But Emily is not really tending to the light; Andrew does all the work.

In 1835, a hurricane hits Key West and the fictional Wreckers’ Cay.  Brady’s hurricane actually did happen and it changes everything for Emily and Andrew.  A new, unwelcome chapter in Emily’s life unfolds.  Later, she marries a wealthy Cuban, who is himself a slave owner.  Seňor Salas is older but enjoys making love to his young, beautiful wife.  Brady uses an anachronism here.  Emily uses the word “sex.”  But it was not until 1929 that “sex” was first used to describe sexual intercourse in the writings of D.H. Lawrence.  I can forgive many things, but an author and editor should get their facts straight.

Emily is truly a woman of great interest in the story.  Her fortunes rise and fall.  She is at times a creature of inaction.  Instead of doing what needs to be done herself she depends too often on others who only lie to her and steer her in the wrong direction.  Other times, though, Emily is cold and calculating.  For example, she only marries the wealthy Cuban man for his money, and her decision was wise.  Brady creates many layers for Emily’s character, yet I found her unlikable.  She is a woman who defies convention, and I feel she will appeal to many readers based on that fact alone.  Emily does not have anything in common with her contemporaries.  She is unlike many women, including her sister Dorothy, who was another character I disliked.

When Brady is on, she is on fire.  She is at her strongest when she portrays real events and real people.  “Wrecking,” a common practice of taking valuables from a shipwreck which foundered close to the shore, features prominently in the story.  This was actually an important economic activity in the Florida Keys, with hundreds of men involved at any given time.  She also shows how frightened people were of Indians.  Fear of Indian attacks on lighthouses was very real.  In Key Biscayne at the Cape Florida Light, keeper William Cooley lost his wife and children during a Seminole Indian raid in 1836.  The incident happened after the outbreak of the Second Seminole War.  Cooley left the lighthouse.  His replacement, John Thompson, and his assistant were attacked by Seminoles on July 23, 1836.  The Indians set fire to the base of the lighthouse.  The fire spread, and the Seminoles also set fire to the keeper’s dwelling.  They left in Thompson’s sloop because they thought an explosion killed Thompson, but he survived (Guide to Florida Lighthouses, p. 49-51).  Brady plays on this fear in her story when she has a group of Indians raiding Wreckers’ Cay.  The actions of one of the Indians, however, really irked me, but Brady explained it in the end.

Brady also accurately depicts a devastating hurricane that struck Key West and surrounding areas in 1846.  The storm took out the Sand Key Reef Light and killed keeper Joshua Appleby, his daughter, and grandson. Keeper Barbara Mabrity and her children took refuge in the Key West lighthouse. She survived, but her children and others who took refuge there, perished.

For me, the real female lighthouse keepers that Brady portrays made this book worth reading.  Their work was grueling.  They were also mothers who had to raise their children while still tending to the light.  They got little pay for the work they did and had to put up with ridicule and sexism.  Brady was as captivated by their stories as was I.  In fact, Barbara Mabrity, Rebecca Flaherty, and “Mary Carol and Mary Bethel, who came later, courageously tended lighthouses for many years in the Florida Keys and inspired” Brady to write her novel.

If you are interested in reading about these women, I recommend Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford.  If you ever have the opportunity to visit and even climb a lighthouse, I urge you to do so.  It is an experience you will not soon forget.  Only then will you truly understand the triumphs and tragedies of female keepers.  Although I did not like Emily, the world of lighthouses and their keepers encouraged me to read this book.

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Finding Your Own Starboard Sea

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont (St. Martin’s Press; 320 pages; $24.99).

            On the surface, Amber Dermont’s debut novel The Starboard Sea may seem superficial.  It is about a teenager from a wealthy family and his boarding school.  What problems could a teen named Jason Prosper have anyway?  Yet Dermont’s plot-driven story has great depth and deeper meaning as she transports readers back to the 1980s and provides us lots of teen angst along the way.  But The Starboard Sea is no John Hughes-type of tale; The Starboard Sea is intelligent, dark, and riveting.

In Jason Prosper’s world, appearances matter.  Why tell the truth when a lie sounds so much better?  It comes as no surprise that Jason has few role models in his life.  Jason, the scion of a wealthy New England family, watches the Iran-Contra hearings with his mother in the summer of 1987.  At seventeen, he has already learned that no one, not even the president, tells the truth.  Everyone has secrets; everyone tells lies—even his parents.  Jason’s mother dons different wigs in an attempt to disguise herself and catch her husband cheating.  She does not believe her husband is faithful.  It is important to point out that the country is on the brink of a stock market crash all because of overvaluing and devaluing the market.  Dermont writes in such a way that deception lurks on every page of this novel.  The reader must understand the deceit that abounds throughout the story before she can then appreciate Jason’s character.  Dermont’s Jason is a product of everything that happens around him.  Because of his elders who constantly drift to and fro with their inconsistencies, Jason is adrift; he is in danger of going under.

In addition to misleading authority figures, Jason’s world also includes “fake cousins” and John Singer Sargent portraits.  Jason and his family are so close with some friends that they have become a kind of quasi-family, even though they are not related.  In his family’s New York City apartment, a Sargent portrait of his great-great-grandmother hangs on the wall.  Not even the portrait is a true conceptualization of his ancestor: “Sargent was notorious for making rich people more attractive than they actually were, and my great-great-grandmother was no exception.”  Sargent airbrushed her into something she was most definitely not–a great beauty.

With all I have mentioned previously, it is quite understandable that this kid, whom his father calls “damaged goods,” carries a lot of baggage.  Most pressing to Jason, though, is the death of his best friend.  It was a suicide, and Jason was first to find the body.  After Cal’s death, Jason enters Bellingham Academy, “island of misfit toys” and place of second chances. 

Bellingham, in itself, is quite intriguing.  The boarding school is located in the town of Bellinghem, Massachusetts.  The founders of the academy think Bellingham simply looks “better on the letterhead.”  Dermont uses this to show yet another example of how Jason is surrounded only by facades.  Very little is real.  Dermont gives us a setting so real and so believable.  She takes her time drawing us into the world she has created.  She sets up the story well.

With all his baggage and heartache, Jason is a very tragic figure.  Cal’s death leaves him reeling.  The two had known each other since they were four and were on the sailing team together.  They won many trophies on the water.  Even at Bellingham, Jason cannot forget Cal.  “Even wet shoes” remind him of his deceased friend.  Jason tries out for the school’s sailing team, but a mishap occurs.  Jason saves the youth but decides to forego sailing without Cal.

At Bellingham, he feels lonely but soon meets someone to fill the void in his life.  He is drawn to a curious and beautiful girl at Bellingham named Aidan.   She owns shoes that she claims were owned by Fred Astaire.  Aidan is a murky figure.  Some things that she says seem less than truthful.  In my opinion, Aidan is Dermont’s most intriguing character.  Aidan’s father may or may not be Robert Mitchum.  Her mother, Aidan swears, is the inspiration for the Eagles’ song Hotel California.

Not surprisingly, Jason falls in love with Aidan.  Soon, all he thinks about are Cal and Aidan, Aidan and Cal.  Dermont, though, brings in a game-changer.  In a nod to the man versus nature conflict, Dermont orchestrates the landfall of a major hurricane on the town of Bellinghem.  The storm devastates both the town and the academy, leaving Jason to contend with yet another loss.

Since accidents and deaths follow Jason, he often thinks of Jessica McClure.  McClure was the toddler who, at eighteen months of age, fell into a well in the backyard of her Midland, Texas, home on October 14, 1987.  After 58 hours, she was saved.  Baby Jessica was saved.  Dermont adds this element to the story to underscore how lost Jason feels.  Jason cannot help but wonder who will save him.  He feels he is drowning but sees no life raft.  Where is his rescue crew to pull him from his abyss?

Because Jason loves the water, Dermont uses ocean motifs throughout her tale.  She is especially fond of sailing metaphors.  This, surprisingly, never grows tiresome and strengthens the narrative.  Her passages are visually stunning.  I want to share some of my favorites.  When Jason sees Bellingham for the first time: “The entire school appeared to float on water, like a life raft.  I felt weightless.  The rhythm of the waves reminded me of naval hymns, of songs about peril and rescue.”  To describe himself after Cal’s death, Jason reveals, “Since Cal’s death, I’d developed a nasty habit of capsizing.”  To describe the hurricane’s devastation, Dermont writes: “Poseidon had struck his trident, summoning his flood, turning Bellingham into a temporary Atlantis.”

Even the novel’s title is a nod to Dermont’s sailing metaphors.  The “starboard sea” means “the right sea, the true sea, or like finding the best path in life.”  In writing this novel, Dermont has truly discovered her own starboard sea.  I hope she does not stray from this, her right path, her own starboard sea.

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Mississippi’s Own Jesmyn Ward Wins National Book Award

Only Jesmyn Ward, a native Mississippian, could have written a book like this.  The Batiste family experiences the mighty wrath of a storm named Katrina, a storm like no other that ravages not only a household but also brutally alters the surrounding landscape.  In Ward’s novel, water serves two purposes: it cleanses and it destructs.  Ward proves with her second novel Salvage the Bones that she deserves a place among Mississippi’s finest literary greats.

Ward previously wrote Where the Line Bleeds, which was an Essence Magazine Book Club selection, a Black Caucus of the ALA Honor Award recipient, and a finalist for both the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.  She received an MFA degree from the University of Michigan and won many awards and honors while a student.  From 2008 to 2010, Ward was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.  She was also the 2010-2011 John and Renѐe Grisham Visiting Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.  Currently, Ward is an Assistant Professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.  She grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi.

Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award in fiction on November 16, 2011.   Congratulations to Ward!  The award is given only to books written by American citizens and published in the United States.  Categories are fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature; only five books are considered per category.  The winner received a bronze sculpture, $10,000, and enormous prestige.  Besides Ward’s Salvage the Bones, other nominees for 2011 NBA were Andrew Krivak (The Sojourn); Téa Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife); Julie Otsuka (The Buddha in the Attic); and Edith Pearlman (Binocular Vision).  Previous winners include Jaimy Gordon for Lord of Misrule and Colum McCann for Let the Great World Spin.

Ward chooses to tell the story in the first person through Esch Batiste, a teenage girl growing up in tiny, coastal Bois Sauvage.   Esch is the only female in a household of boys and men; her mother died in childbirth.  The reader also meets Mr. Claude Batiste, the father, lonely for his wife and always on the lookout for storms.  Mr. Claude is prescient during the active hurricane season of 2005 when he predicts a storm will hit them.  “What you think I been talking about?  I knew it was coming,” Mr. Claude says.  He urges his family to prepare.  Esch’s brothers also feature prominently in the story.  Randall plays basketball, and he excels at the sport.  Desperate to attend basketball camp, Randall knows the only way he will go to college is if he wins a scholarship.  Skeetah, in my view, is the most interesting of Esch’s brothers.  He is so attached to his dog China that at times he seems like the animal’s mother or lover: “Skeetah bends down to China, feels her from neck to jaw, caresses her face like he would kiss her….”  Yet, Skeetah uses China in dog fights.  The smallest Batiste brother is Junior, the baby, who never knew his mother.  Junior loves to get into trouble and trail after his older siblings.  He worships his brothers and wants to take every step they take.  On the surface, it might seem like a perfect family.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Esch is pregnant, a fact she is keeping secret from everyone: “If I could, I would reach inside of me and pull out my heart and that tiny wet seed that will become the baby.”

With dog fighting, Ward takes on a controversial subject and does not shy away from it.  Without a doubt, dog fighting is cruel and should be abhorred, yet Ward puts a different spin on this sport.  Dog fighting is prevalent not only in the South but also within the African-American community.  Both come together here in the Batiste clan.  It is also a cheap form of entertainment in rural areas where nothing else might be going on.  As a dog lover, I was surprised by how Ward handled dog fighting.  With the Michael Vick scandal a few years ago, I had a preconceived notion of who owners were who would participate in such cruel behavior.  However, Skeetah did not fit into my stereotype.  He loved China, he took great care with her, and he took great care with her puppies.  The subject added so much to the book and also provided a wonderful sub-plot to make a good novel that much better.  I applaud Ward for writing about such a potentially dangerous topic.

Meanwhile, as Esch reads Edith Hamilton’s Mythology for school, she compares herself to Medea.  Medea, in Greek mythology, was an enchantress who used her powers to help Jason and the Argonauts find the Golden Fleece.  “Medea’s journey took her to the water, which was the highway of the ancient world, where death was as close as the waves, the sun, [and] the wind.”  In ancient Greece, Ward writes, “water meant death.”  Ward uses Medea so readers can compare this to Katrina.  Ultimately, Katrina cleanses and destroys at the same time.  The storm mends a family at the breaking point while also destroying a way of life and a landscape.  In this same vein, Ward uses hurricane metaphors throughout, a superb foreshadowing technique, such as “frothing waves.”

Hurricane Katrina, even before it has formed, looms over the entire book.  With Katrina churning, making a bull’s eye for the Mississippi coast, the reader knows it will not end well.  Although we already know what will happen, Ward manages to give us a suspense-filled novel.  We are attached to the characters and want the best for them; we want them to survive.  But nothing came out unscathed from Katrina, and the Batiste family is no exception.

Salvage the Bones is always emotional, readable, and real.   No one who ever lived through Hurricane Katrina could read this novel and not cry.  It is just impossible.  Ward’s name has hereby been added to the list of Mississippi’s literary giants.  Faulkner, Welty, Foote, Grisham, Ward.

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