When Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes came out in August I felt pretty sure that I wasn't ready to read about a young girl's experiences with Hurricane Katrina, despite the alluring cover art by Shino Arihara. Eventhough I always tell people that I only read kid's books because they always have a happy ending, and they do, it's still sometimes hard to read about the trials the characters experience. On the other hand, the amazing, wonderful, beautiful thing about a book, a good book, a really well written book, is that it can open you up to the difficulties then carry you through the sadness and the pain to the happy ending, especially when it is layered with metaphors and narrated by a character with a remarkable outlook on life as the Ninth Ward is. Jewell Parker Rhodes' poignant novel does all of this and more. Happily, the Ninth Ward is getting a lot of well deserved attention now that the 2011 Newbery awards are right around the corner.
Being a kid's book, I knew Lanesha and TaShon would survive, but I had not idea what they would have to go through first. Breaking through a window in the attic, the two climb onto the roof, hauling Spot with them, leaving the last of their food, water and the remains of Mama Ya-Ya floating inside. They spend two days baking in the hot sun waiting for help, watching helicopters overhead and listening to other stranded people and families screaming from their rooftops. Lanesha says she never knew black people could get sunburned. TaShon's foot slips into the murky, debris filled water at one point and is read and itchy for the rest of the day. Neither child knows how to swim, adding to the fear. When Lanesha notices a row boat wedged between the houses, she knows that this is their best hope yet she has no way to free it. Thinking about math and angles, she snags a passing tree truck and, with TaShon's help, the two teeter on the edge of the roof and attempt to use the trunk as a battering ram in the hops of freeing the boat. When it doesn't work, Lanesha knows that their only hope is for her to take a running jump at the boat with the trunk and hope it works. As she is about to leap she tells herself, "I am strong. I am not scared. I think this in a blink of a butterfly's eye."
Lanesha frees the boat but sinks into the black waters, her foot caught on a branch. Trapped, she begins to think about facing her own death when she sees her mother's ghost in front of her. Her eyes "aren't dull and black. They're seeing me. But it's her eyes that make all the difference." After years of wanting to connect with her mother's ghost, wondering why she staying in the house, always pregnant, Lanesha begins to understand what Mama Ya-Ya meant when she said that she and the ghost were going to help her "get birthed." Freed from the branch, Lanesha, with the help of her mother, finds herself shooting toward the surface of the water, propelled into the boat where TaShon and Spot are waiting for her. The two begin the hard job of rowing the boat toward people, toward help, singing with relief and joy. Lanesha sees the hoards of ghosts on the shore ahead and thinks, "I sense, if they could, the dead would build a bridge. Help the living. If their spirits were concrete, we, and the rest of the Ninth Ward (all of New Orleans), would be forever safe. Ghost levees. Ghost bridges."
The final paragraph in the book is so beautiful, so uplifting and hopeful and exemplary of the person that Lanesha, who is now alone in the world, is and the place that she came from that I have to include it here.
I've been born to a new life. I don't know what's going to happen to me.
I just know I'm going to be all right.
I'm Lanesha. Born with a caul. Interpreter of symbols and signs. Future engineer. Shinning love.
I'm Mama Ya-Ya's girl.
A truly remarkable, moving book tucked into 217 pages. Whether it wins any awards, it deserves to be on the shelves for a long, long time. Cybils nominee in the Science Fiction/Fantasy Middle Grade/Elementary readers category. For other reviews check out Reading in Color, TheHappyNappyBookseller and at Charlotte's Library. You can read a fabulous interview with Jewell Parker Rhodes at Through the Tollbooth and TheHappyNappyBookseller.
Readers who enjoyed this book might also like the Newbery Honor book feathers by Jacqueline Woodson. Although she doesn't face a natural disaster like Lanesha did, Frannie does exhibit the same introspection, thoughtfulness, resilience and intelligence and her story is worth reading. Another short book packed with big ideas.
Below are pictures of the Ninth Ward after the destruction.