Monday, January 10, 2011

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ninth WardI wanted to make that image bigger, but it looks like it makes it blurry. So, oh well.

I first ran across Ninth Ward (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) at some iteration of ALA. A promotional postcard. I saw a girl and a flower and a boat first, and discreetly snatched it as I walked past a booth, trying my best to look innocent. Oh, it's okay; there were lots of postcards and they were giving them away.

Later, I read the title and wondered what this book would be about. I put off reading it for a while, because I have a complicated relationship with New Orleans. In brief, I was one of its first tourists after Katrina, there to look at meeting spaces, and the people there, reliant on tourism--but more importantly, damn proud of their city--made me welcome and invited me back. Since then, I've had a crush on New Orleans, and I find excuses to visit every now and then, mostly haunting the French Quarter and smelling that good/bad odor of a layered history where so many things have collided, of debauchery contrasted fine dining, of triumph over trouble.

Reading Ninth Ward was a very visceral experience for me; the words jumped off the page and made shapes and colors and smells, and the whole time, I was on edge. I thought about live blogging a re-read instead of doing a traditional review, but I would rather convince you to read the book yourself, if you haven't yet, especially today, when it just got a nod as a Coretta Scott King honor book.

Lanesha was born with a caul, a membrane covering her face, and twelve years later, she still can see that veil between worlds. She sees ghosts of New Orleans, including her mother, who died in childbirth, but who hangs around as a silent specter. Lanesha might wonder about her mother, but she's been mothered by Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who took her in--and who showers her with love to make up for a lack of money, who teaches her to navigate all the worlds Lanesha knows, and who teaches her to rely on herself by modeling wisdom and compassion.

The story spans just over a week, the time before, during, and just after Hurricane Katrina makes landfall. In that space, Lanesha comes of age in her own way by grasping the idea that she will make her own future, by making a friend, and by discovering that she not alone, but part of a community.

Jewell Parker Rhodes's writing is simple but really, really amazing. Even in the first few pages, there are moments that are filled with light and that foreshadow despair at the same time. If you've never been to New Orleans, I can't imagine that you could read this book and visit later and find fault with her descriptions; even the air is a character in this book. Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya have one of the most beautiful adult-child relationships I have ever seen, and one of the most poignant, as Mama Ya-Ya holds Lanesha tightly but also gently loosens the strings of their relationship so that Lanesha controls her own destiny.

I love how Lanesha thinks in dictionary entries and mathematical symbols. I love how she looks also for symbols in how people act, and colors, and things that happen, things she's learned from Mama Ya-Ya are the things that organize the world. Lanesha versus Hurricane Katrina is appropriately scary and sad--and hopeful, too.I think it is an age-appropriate look at one of the United States's greatest natural disasters, and that it is a compelling and thoughtful read for adults who remember the storm.

Because of the ghost element of the story, people interpret Ninth Ward in a lot of ways--as general middle grade fiction, as science fiction/horror, as magical realism. I think it will appeal to readers of all genres, who may decide for themselves.


  1. I got this on my tbr pile before the ALA announcement. It got a glowing review in a few review journals and I loved the concept behind the book. Looking forward to reading it!

  2. I hope you like it! I think I especially liked that I had experiences to remember as I read, but I think it's well done regardless.


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