Memories of the French Quarter: August 29, 2005
Stuff I Didn’t Know About Hurricanes
A. Over the past 150 years, 49 hurricanes have struck Louisiana.
B. The intensity of a hurricane is measured by something called the Saffir-Simpson scale. It goes from 1 to 5, and 5 is the worst.
C. The weight of a single cubic yard of water is equal to 1700 pounds. WOW!
D. The chance of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans head-on was calculated today to be only 17 percent.
–Notes of (fictional) 11 year-old Saint Beach, from the book by Brenda Woods. Data gathered from the television in the hospital cafeteria, where his mama works. He stays in Treme against his parent’s wishes, in order to save his dog, Shadow. You should also know that Saint is a virtuoso at the clarinet.
Seven years ago today one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history hit New Orleans. Issac has come around at the same time, which is something else. I hope we can think of those struggling in the present while we talk about the past.
This week, I am discussing the way literature for children deals with the event. So far, we have discussed The Storm, a compilation of written memories and pictures made by students in the Biloxi public school. We asked what sort of document this was, and whether or not it could be considered historical fiction. I believe its first mission was to record; its second, to gather compassion for those who suffered.
But fiction’s role is to bring you inside an event outside of your experience. The story transports you. The author doesn’t record an event but rather encodes it with meaning. This is the idea behind theme. Blake Snyder, an author of books about screenwriting, says that every movie is like a good argument. A question is raised: Can we trust other people? And each scene bats this idea back and forth, sometimes proving that no, people can’t be trusted, and other times showing the opposite.
I was transported, recently, by the middle-grade novel Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods. The argument she poses is an argument many had to deal with during the events of Katrina: should I stay, or should I go? When it came time to evacuate, Saint’s mom decides she must stay at the hospital to look after her patients. Saint’s father sends Saint up the interstate with his brother, Uncle Hugo. But Saint ditches them at a gas station, running all the way back to his beloved hometown, Treme. He decides to stay… he has to rescue the street dog Shadow at all costs. When he finally catches the dog, he hunkers down in an attic with a frail, diabetic woman, Miz Moran, who has refused, under any circumstances to leave her property, despite the pleading of her family.
Treme is a well-drawn town, full of wonderful characters. Saint plays the clarinet in the French Quarter, along with a host of street musicians who give him tips on how to get the music in your soul, as well as how to make money. New Orleans is the soul of this book. As a piece of historical fiction, it is a blues song played of a fictional community. Its most powerful refrains are those that show how much the characters care for each other, and the town. Indeed, though he hopes one day to go to Julliard and study music, New Orleans is in Saint’s bones:
I wondered if I’d ever see Jupi, the Tiberons, or Smoky again. Would my feet ever walk down St. Bernard Avenue, Canal Street, along Moon Walk, or through the Quarter? Maybe I’d never hop the ferry to Algiers or shovel red beans and rice into my mouth at Willie Mae’s on more time. And the way Mama and Pops were talking, we might never be able to go back to live in our house in Treme.
But even if, like some people claim, New Orleans is over–no one can ever really take it away, because New Orleans is inside of me, Saint Louis Armstrong Beach, and always will be.
I’ve been visiting New Orleans since I was nineteen years old. I’ve been both before Katrina and after. The place, with its music and energy, lives on. I’ve set most of my books somewhere in Louisiana, because the place and its history speak to me. Sometimes I am more focused on the stories of my characters, the stories of a time, the story of religion, or the story of slavery than I am on New Orleans. But New Orleans is always there, like a whispering ghost.
Like the collection The Storm, Brenda Woods demonstrates another form of historical fiction for us, in her treatment of Katrina. She writes historical fiction to capture the spirit of a place. Saint Louis Armstrong Beach is a manifestation of that place. He is also one heck of a tough boy. I sure wish my girl, Lanesha, could have known him.
Setting as Art
“In The Music Box, New Orleans Hears Hope:” check out this story about a destroyed property in the Ninth Ward that was turned into a piece of art!
Literary Question of the Day:
Can you think of any other examples of fiction (historical or otherwise) that draw their power primarily from setting and place?