Review 1521: The Yellow House

The Yellow House is not just a memoir. It’s more an excavation of self and belonging. Sarah M. Broom centers her explorations around her childhood home in New Orleans East. She begins with what she knows of her grandparents’ lives and her parents’ before marrying. Then she tells how her mother, Ivory Mae, purchased the yellow house when she was 19, the first house owned by the family.

At the time of the purchase, 1961, New Orleans East was touted as a promising area for expansion of the city. However, this promise never unfolded. The story of the slow crumbling of the neighborhood and house, culminating in Hurricane Katrina, is a symbol of the disenfranchising of all the poor inhabitants of the city, particularly those of color.

Although Broom was living in New York at the time of the hurricane, many of her family members had to be evacuated, and two of her brothers chose to ride the storm out. The storm destroyed the house, but it also rendered the family physically and metaphorically homeless. Almost more excruciating is the catalog of incompetence and obliviousness to the needs of its citizens by the city of New Orleans after the storm.

This is an interesting and eye-opening memoir about the population of the city that is usually ignored, and of course, it has ramifications for all such populations in all such cities.

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Day 1089: Literary Wives! The Awakening

Cover for The AwakeningWe have two new members of Literary Wives joining us today, I hope. They are Eva of Paperback Princess and TJ of My Book Strings. Welcome, Eva and TJ!

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

Literary critic Elaine Showalter, in her introduction to The Awakening, says it is “recognized today as the first aesthetically successful novel to have been written by an American woman.” I’m not at all sure what she means by “aesthetically successful,” but there is no doubt that the novel was revolutionary, and controversial.

The novel begins with a summer on Grand Isle, south of New Orleans. The Pontelliers are vacationing there, or at least Edna and the children are. Léonce spends the week in the city.

Edna has an almost constant companion, the young man Robert Lebrun. As he adopts a young married woman every summer to worship, no one takes him seriously. But sometime during the summer, Edna realizes she is in love with him.

Edna begins a slow self-realization during which she tries to cast off the parts of her life that are not really hers. Shockingly for her audience in 1899, these include her duties to her husband and children.

Even from the beginning of the novel, her husband criticizes her child-rearing and housekeeping skills, and her mothering is contrasted to that of the other mothers very simply. We’re told that when her children fall down, they pick themselves back up and go on instead of crying and being fussed over by their mothers. This sounds like good mothering to me but apparently was not the norm in Edna’s set of Creole neighbors. Creole in the New Orleans sense means of French descent, and tellingly, Edna is the only one among them who is not Creole.

The descriptions of this summer are heavy with atmosphere and lush, almost sensual. Although barely perceptible on the island, Edna’s awakening affects her behavior after Robert leaves for Mexico and she returns to the city. She is no longer able to lead a conventional life.

Although the novel is considered a feminist classic and was radical for its time, from a modern feminist viewpoint, Edna’s behavior is still defined by her relationship to men. She is awakened by her feelings for Robert, but even in her emancipation her fate is determined by her relationships to men.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Even before her awakening, Edna seems bored and disenchanted with marriage, although she perhaps doesn’t know it. She is married to an older man who is both critical and generous, at times controlling, at times neglectful. She loves her children but does not dote on them or even seem to think of them very often. In truth, she seems a lot like my mother, dreamy and abstracted and not very prone to domesticity.

As her foils in the story, she has two opposites. Madame Ratignolle is the personification of motherhood, with a loving relationship with her husband. Mademoiselle Reisz, the musician, lives a meager and bitter existence alone. These two opposites seem to pose extremities of alternative lives for her.

For Edna, marriage is stifling. She attempts to move out of the bounds of marriage and take up a creative life. To do so, she feels she must shed everything pertaining to her previous life.

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Day 467: Queen Sugar

Cover for Queen SugarMany of the outcomes of Queen Sugar are foreseeable from the beginning. Charley Bordelon, an African-American widowed school teacher from California who has inherited a Louisiana sugar cane farm, will face multiple problems in an industry dominated by white men but will prevail. Charley, a suburbanite from Los Angeles, will create a place for herself among her relatives in the small rural community. Charley will have problems with her tween daughter Micah but will work them out. Charley will find love. And Charley may be able to mend her relationship with her estranged brother Ralph Angel.

Well, almost right. The fact is that Queen Sugar is predictable, but it still makes an enjoyable and interesting reading experience.

Charley and her daughter arrive in Louisiana a little late for the start of the sugar season, but she’s hired a manager, who supposedly has gotten started on his own. When she arrives at her farm, though, the manager has done nothing and hands in his resignation. With a late start and a bedraggled looking acreage, Charley must find a manager to teach her the sugar business. She just barely has the money to make it through the first year.

Charley and her daughter Micah are living squeezed into a small room in the home of Miss Honey, Charley’s grandmother. Miss Honey throws a party for Charley to meet all her Louisiana and Texas family, but everyone is dismayed when Charley’s half-brother Ralph Angel arrives with his little boy. Charley has not met Ralph Angel since she was a girl, but the rest of the family is angry because he pushed Miss Honey down and broke her arm the last time he was there. Still, Miss Honey wants the family to accept him.

Baszile does a good job of making Ralph Angel understandable. He bears a grudge against Charley, believing that she has been spoiled all her life and has had all the advantages due to him. He is also a criminal. He is not a villain, but his behavior is almost invariably self-defeating. He considers himself too educated for manual labor, consistently exaggerating his accomplishments, and works his way out of several jobs, cheats, lies, and steals. Still, Baszile is able to evoke in us a modicum of sympathy for him without magically providing him a happy ending.

http://www.netgalley.comCharley battles bad weather, difficulties finding a manager or affordable equipment, attempts to cheat her, and her own feelings of inadequacy trying to get her first crop to the mill. During the battle we learn interesting facts about the sugar industry. Baszile also creates a lively picture of this colorful area of the country, with its mix of cultures.

Charley’s courtship by a sugar grower named Remy Newell adds some piquancy without taking over the story. If you are looking for something light with a likable, determined heroine, you’ll probably enjoy Queen Sugar.