Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes, 217 pp, RL 4


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.

Ninth Ward begins on Sunday, August 21st, narrator, Lanesha's twelfth birthday.  As always, Lanesha and eighty-two year old Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who delivered her and raised her after her teenage mother died giving birth to her, celebrate by spending the day together gardening, cooking and having a good meal and as much cake as they can eat.  Despite the fact that Lanesha has wealthy relatives who live less than eight miles away, they want nothing to do with her and the childless Mama Ya-Ya, living  on a fixed income, has gladly raised her.  The  deep love between the two, as well as the wisdom and intelligence that is passed from one to the other, is evident right from the start.  Mama Ya-Ya has been teaching Lanesha all her life, whether it is about the symbols used in math or the symbols that exist all around them, from the meanings of colors and numbers to the interpretation of dreams.  Besides being a midwife,  Mama Ya-Ya is a mystic and a healer, a practitioner of the old ways that crossed the oceans from Africa.  Mama Ya-Ya is especially well suited to love and care for Lanesha and appreciate a special gift she was born with.  Covered in a caul at birth, Lanesha can see ghosts.  This fact, and her light green eyes, make her an outcast in her neighborhood and school.  However, having started her new middle school without her reputation preceding her, Lanesha is beginning to feel less alone in the world, especially when her young Teach for America math teacher, Miss Johnson, praises her and gives her extra attention because of her superior math skills.  For Lanesha, everything is math (and this outlook serves her well when she figures out how to calculate the rate at which the water is creeping up the stairs of her house), and Miss Johnson inspires her to set her sights on becoming and engineer who designs bridges.

On her birthday, Mama Ya-Ya tells Lanesha that 8 + 4 = 12 and 12 means "spiritual strength. Real strength, Lanesha.  Some people doubt it because they can't see it on the outside. Like butterflies. To most folks, they seem delicate. But the truth is, butterflies keep changing, no matter what, going from ugly worm to hard cocoon to strong wings."  The image of the butterfly is one that Lanesha carries with her as the days progress, and she will need it. A week later, Hurricane Katrina hits.  Mama Ya-Ya has seen the storm coming and knows that the city will survive, but there is something about her vision that confounds her. Although she has told Lanesha not to talk to the ghosts because once you start it is hard to stop, she asks her to speak with them about the approaching storm. The ghost of Lanesha's mother, still nine months pregnant, has been a constant in Mama Ya-Ya's home, although her eyes are always distant as if her thoughts are far away. She has never spoken to Lanesha, despite many attempts. With Mama Ya-Ya's urging, she tries again but still has no luck. Lanesha watches as some of her neighbors pack up and leave the city while other neighbors carry on like it is Mardi Gras, ghosts filling the streets.  Knowing that there is not room in the car despite the offer of a neighbor for her and Mama Ya-Ya to join them, that they have no way to get to the Super Dome with TaShon's family and that there will not be money in the bank until the Social Security check arrives on the first of the month, Lanesha decides that she will take care of her family and her home. Lanesha boards up the windows as best she can, stocks up on clean water and moves the television and a cooler full of food up to Mama Ya-Ya's bedroom.  When quiet TaShon, a neighbor boy who is Lanesha's age and is also an outcast having been born with the stumps of a sixth finger on each hand, comes to the house begging Lanesha to take in a stray dog he has found, they don't say no.  

The description of the of the storm hitting the house is intense and I would be very surprised to learn that Rhodes had never been in one. Lanesha exhibits strength and fortitude (a word that she and TaShon were taught in class, a word they both have come to love) and pulls herself and the fading Mama Ya-Ya and Spot into the bath tub as the eye of the storm passes over them.  When the morning comes Lanesha observes the devastation but feels hopeful that they have made it through the night and the house is still standing. TaShon appears at their door. Having been separated from his parents after a terrifying night in the Super Dome, he makes his way back to the Ninth Ward, walking and getting a ride from a woman looking for a lost loved one. Things seem to be getting better until Lanesha notices the water creeping across the yard and into the house.  Mama Ya-Ya tells Lanesha that she has been talking with her mother and they have decided "we're going to help you get birthed" and tells Lanesha to move everything up to the attic.   Finally allowing herself to know that Mama Ya-Ya is dying, Lanesha shares a final exchang of loving words. Before the night is over, Mama Ya-Ya has passed and the water has made it's way to the attic.

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 Lanesha.
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.

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