Mention New Orleans and most people think of the French Quarter, with its cast-iron balconies, rowdy bars, street musicians and Mardi Gras parades. It is the heart of the city’s tourist industry, attracting 18 million visitors a year. But despite its titanic significance to the city’s economy, the French Quarter encompasses less than 1 square mile of real estate in a city of 400,000 people. Point being, there is a lot more to New Orleans than the tourist attractions, and that’s the part debut author Sarah M. Broom writes about in her thoughtful, nuanced memoir, “The Yellow House.”
New Orleans East doesn’t show up in glossy tri-fold brochures promoting tourism. It barely registers on some maps of the city. But it’s where Broom grew up, the youngest of 12 siblings in a two-bedroom shotgun house bought in 1961 for $3,200 by her mother, Ivory Mae, a 19-year-old widow who was eight months pregnant at the time.
It took three years to make the place habitable, at which time Ivory, her second husband Simon Broom and their combined brood of eight children moved in. The family grew, and so did the house, gaining an upstairs bedroom, a second bathroom and a den, hastily constructed from salvaged materials following Hurricane Betsy. Simon’s workmanship never measured up to Ivory’s high standards, but she made it a home, decorating it with yellow carpet, handmade curtains and French provincial furnishings.
Projecting an immaculate image was a quality Ivory prized. Her children were sharp dressers, thanks to her keen skills with a sewing machine. They presented a spit-shined profile at school and church that contrasted sharply with the state of their home, which slipped into disrepair after Simon Broom’s death just six months after the author was born.
“We looked like people who had money. In how we dressed but more than that, in the way we carried ourselves possibly with airs,” Broom writes. “The house, unlike the clothes our mother had tailored to us, was an ungainly fit.”
Because of that, the family turned inward, strengthening its ties with one another within their shabby but still beloved shelter. Even her grown brothers who left to start families of their own were drawn back when their relationships fizzled.
“I cannot pinpoint the precise moment when I came to understand that no one outside our family was ever to come inside the Yellow House,” Broom writes. “Without knowing how it came to be, we left every person in our world who was not family outside “
Feeling shame for something she deeply loved was a complex set of emotions for a child also grappling with the loss of a universally adored father, whom she never knew. She coped by fleeing as far as she could, starting with college in Texas, then to a job with O Magazine in New York City. That’s where she was when, in the parlance of New Orleanians, the water came in 2005.
Little was left of the Yellow House after Hurricane Katrina. Broom paints a harrowing picture of her family members’ various experiences escaping the city to points east and west, from California to Georgia. Most of them would never return.
The author reacted to the family’s loss by taking a nonprofit job in war-torn Burundi, an alarming move considering how little forethought she gave relocating to such a dangerous environment rife with civil unrest.
“I was genuinely interested in placing what happened in New Orleans in a more global context to understand how loss, danger and forced migration play out in other parts of the world,” Broom writes. “I was also finding, I can admit now, anthropological, academic language for the urge to distance myself from the fate of my family, which of course was my fate, too.”
Eventually, Broom returned to New Orleans, taking an apartment in the French Quarter for a year while she researched the history of her house and her family for the memoir. On move-in day, she noticed that her brother Carl appeared ill at ease in her third-floor apartment with a balcony overlooking one of the tourist district’s busiest corners. He would never return after that day, saying, “Not everybody meant to be in them Quarters.”
While Katrina is the cataclysmic event that centers Broom’s story, “The Yellow House” isn’t really about the storm. It’s about the devastating, generational effects of social, economic and political disparity across racial lines, and how people with few resources are decimated by disaster. But don’t mistake that description for a dry account of public policy. Broom has done an astonishing job stitching together the stories of her family, the history of the city and her investigations into how developers and governmental agencies contributed to her family’s situation, and she embroiders it with enough heart and drama to keep the reader awake at the night, eager to see the outcome.
“The Yellow House” is filled with a lot of memorable characters, but none resonate like Carl, who stands guard over the patch of land where the family’s house once stood while they wait years for restitution. Not only does Carl keep the grass trimmed and chastise drunks who dump their empties there, but he often holds court at night at a table and chairs set up in the front yard where he drinks and entertains old friends who pass by.
“He was the keeper of memory,” writes Broom. In a different way, she is, too.
By Suzanne Van Atten