In the heat of late summer, two New Orleans families—one black and one white—confront a storm that will change the course of their lives.
SJ Williams, a carpenter and widower, lives and works in the Lower Ninth Ward community where he was born and raised. Across town, Craig Donaldson, a Midwestern transplant and the editor of the city's alternative paper, faces deepening cracks in his family. When the news of the gathering hurricane spreads—and when the levees give way and the floodwaters come—the fate of each family changes forever.
Tom Piazza has emerged as a leading eulogist for pre-Katrina New Orleans. After being displaced by the storm, he wrote Why New Orleans Matters, a bluesy wail that voiced both grief and outrage. In that book, which was published only months after the August 29, 2005, storm, he argued passionately for the city to be rebuilt. His novel City of Refuge further illuminates the brutality of Katrina and the monumental government failure to respond. Piazza follows two New Orleans families, beginning the week before the hurricane. In the early chapters, he establishes the baseline of home, family, and routine that is lavish with New Orleans detail. SJ Williams, a second-generation carpenter and Vietnam vet, his older sister, Lucy, and her son, Wesley, lifelong residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, enjoy a Sunday parade and SJ's fried chicken. Midwestern transplant Craig Donaldson, editor of the local alternative weekly, prepares a crawfish boil to celebrate his son Malcolm's birthday with his wife Alice, daughter Annie, and friends. Then comes the news of a storm in the Gulf. It is a measure of Piazza's artfulness that the familiar story unfolds with unrelenting suspense and a mounting sense of Katrina's human cost. Craig and family evacuate, expecting to be away a few days, and find themselves living for months with relatives in Illinois. SJ and Lucy stay put until the waters rise to the second floor. After paddling Lucy to safety, SJ rescues neighbors until he collapses. It is weeks before he, Lucy, and Wesley find each other again. Both families face hard decisions: To return and rebuild, or start over in exile? By focusing on individual choices people were forced to make moment by moment, day by day, City of Refuge becomes as powerful as the television images that kept us glued to the screen during those terrible August days. --Jane Ciabattari