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City of Refuge
Tom Piazza
August 4, 2009
Harper Perennial
432 pages
Fiction, Historical Fiction

When Lisa first approached me to find out if I’d be interested in reviewing City of Refuge for a TLC tour, I have to admit that I was a little hesitant.  I hadn’t heard of the book before, and I just wasn’t sure if I’d like it.  I can tell you now that I am beyond glad that I chose to review City of Refuge, because this book is nothing short of fantastic.  It will easily go down as one of my favorite books this year.

City of Refuge is a fictional account of two families’ experiences living through Hurricane Katrina.  The book follows SJ Williams, a carpenter and widower who lives in the Lower Ninth Ward (which I can only assume by the context of the book is one of the rougher parts of New Orleans) with his sister, Lucy, and nephew Wesley.  When SJ and his family hear about the incoming hurricane, they decide to ride out the storm – like most families in the area, they are sure it’s going to be a false alarm; and besides, they don’t have any way to get out of the city.  Alongside SJ’s story is Craig Donaldson’s, who moved to New Orleans from the Midwest, and works as an editor of one of the city’s newspapers.  Him and his family, wife Alice and two small children Annie and Malcolm, live in the “nice” part of New Orleans, and when they hear word that a massive hurricane will strike, they do everything they can to get out of town before it hits.  SJ’s family is black; Craig’s family is white.  This wouldn’t be worth pointing out if it weren’t for the reality of the news coverage and media spotlights on Hurricane Katrina – consistently pointing out the obvious differences between the people who were able to get out of town and the people who were not.  As you can imagine, SJ and Craig have two completely different experiences when Katrina actually hits New Orleans.

City of Refuge is an amazing book for many reasons, and I’m not confident that I can explain those reasons adequately but I will certainly try.  First of all, Tom Piazza is passionate about New Orleans and the story of Hurricane Katrina, and it shows in the novel.  He did a fantastic job illuminating the mistakes that were made in the build-up to the hurricane, including the levees never being fixed when it was known for years that they would eventually collapse, and not assisting people in getting out of the city.  Even when there was a “mandatory” evacuation, there were no buses or other transportation to help those without cars.  Piazza was seamless in mixing the history of New Orleans and the technical information about the hurricane with the stories of the Williams family and the Donaldson family.  I was just as interested in reading the portions about the hurricane itself as I was in reading about the two families.

Another reason this book was so wonderful is the absolute believability of the characters.  I can’t quite explain how much these characters got in my head – they were with me when I was at work, driving in my car, trying to fall asleep at night – I couldn’t get them out of my thoughts at all.  I loved Piazza’s technique of telling the story of Hurricane Katrina from two very different perspectives – it really helped me to see the tragedy in such a different light.  I’m sure you all watched the TV coverage of Katrina just like I did, but when you read about someone’s experiences (even a fictional character’s), it really brings the human factor to the forefront.  There were a few scenes in the book that were REALLY hard for me, I have to admit.  But the reason they were hard was because they were so realistic, Piazza truly illuminated the most horrifying aspects of Katrina, and the truth is not always easy to read about.  But City of Refuge’s honesty is one of its best qualities.

If you can’t tell already, another redeeming quality of City of Refuge is the fact that it is unputdownable.  I mean that literally – when I wasn’t reading the book, I was thinking about it, waiting anxiously to get back to it, and hoping to get a break in whatever I was doing so that I could read a few more pages.  I could NOT wait to find out what would happen to these two families, how their stories would ultimately work themselves out in the end.

City of Refuge is just an amazing novel.  I truly am blown away by this book, and I cannot recommend it more highly than that.  Besides a captivating story, you will be reading the truth about Hurricane Katrina – it may not always be easy to read, but this is a very important book.  I loved it and I’m thrilled I was given the chance to read it.  Thanks, TLC Book Tours for the opportunity!

Here are the other stops on the blog tour for City of Refuge:

Wednesday, August 26th: Rough Edges
Thursday, August 27th: Stuff As Dreams Are Made On
Monday, August 31st: Word Lily
Tuesday, September 8th: Book Chase
Thursday, September 10th: Cheryl’s Book Nook
Wednesday, September 16th: Linus’s Blanket
Thursday, September 17th: Book Addiction
Monday, September 28th: Devourer of Books
Tuesday, September 29th: Lesa’s Book Critiques
Wednesday, September 30th: Luxury Reading