Tag Archives: Katrina

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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The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

Book Review: The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill (Scribner; 368 pages; $26).

the-violet-hour.jpgKatherine Hill begins her intimate and utterly beguiling first novel, The Violet Hour, on a boat.  This leisure cruise ultimately charts the course of Hill’s novel.  What we assume will be a  fun excursion on the San Francisco Bay for Abe and Cassandra Green and their daughter, Elizabeth, leads to the end of a marriage.  Hill then progresses the narrative forward from 1997 to 2005, an eight-year progression into the future that seems strange at first but then becomes clear.  It is just the distance Hill’s distinctive and multi-faceted narrators need to illuminate both the union and the fracturing of a family.

Cassandra has not laid eyes on Abe in almost eight years when she, Elizabeth, and her siblings gather for the birthday of Cassandra’s father.  When a tragic accident befalls Cassandra’s father and takes his life, his loved ones are left reeling.

Hill has a rationale for killing a character on his birthday when he is surrounded by his family.  Cassandra’s father had run a funeral parlor in the basement of their home.  For this family perhaps more so than for others, death is truly a part of life.  Especially in late August of 2005.

Hill’s superbly crafted characters are especially attuned to the suffering that a storm called Katrina has inflicted upon the Gulf Coast.  Hurricane Katrina left an indelible mark on both the region it hit and on our nation as a whole.  As a person who went through Katrina’s destruction and aftermath, I do not see how a writer could set any kind of tale in late August and early September 2005 and not feature Katrina.  It would be irresponsible otherwise.  Hill draws a compelling and convincing parallel between Hurricane Katrina and the death of Cassandra’s father, nicely juxtaposing the two calamities.  As a family is changed forever, a country is irrevocably altered.  Thus, Hill effectually intertwines a family and a country both in the midst of loss.

Katrina’s flood waters provide Hill with the opportunity to bring her story full circle.  Abe had relished the time he spent on hillthe San Francisco Bay in his boat.  Sure, the water might have been choppy at times, but the experience renewed him.  Water nourishes us; we need it to survive.  The essential liquid cleanses, soothes, and provides respite, but it also has a dark side. In Katrina, the water thunders, roils, gathers momentum and wreaks havoc on a city.  Tiny vessels ferry residents to safety.  As in the beginning of the story, Hill returns to boats.  This time the boats are rescuing hurricane survivors and charting the course of others’ lives.

Deftly plotted, richly characterized, and brilliantly placed, The Violet Hour is a perfect novel for fans of Ghana Must Go.   Hill knocked me over with her very personal portrayal of a family’s past and present.  She knows how to keep readers turning pages.  I am particularly  pleased she highlights Katrina so prominently in the book.  Without the historic and devastating storm, this story would definitely lose some of its impact

 

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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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