“Remembering is a chair that is hard to sit still in,” Sarah M. Broom writes, halfway through “The Yellow House.” Indeed, her memoir does not sit still but moves gracefully through the inner and outer world of her New Orleans-based family.
We begin with the house, because these lives pivot around 4121 Wilson Ave. in East New Orleans, a location largely forgotten by locals and visitors alike. Most of the street is residential, then there’s the busy Chef Menteur Highway that is largely industrial. It’s this cut-off block where Ivory Mae Webb, recently widowed at age 19 and eight months pregnant, bought the house. It was 1961, and East New Orleans was touted by developers as the next big thing in real estate — a promise that never came to fruition.
The Yellow House needed work, but it was a source of pride. When Ivory Mae remarries, her new husband, Simon Broom, joins her there. Then Hurricane Betsy hits, flooding New Orleans East and pushing several feet of water into the home. They rebuild and carry on, continuing to care for the house as their family grows.
Sarah Monique Broom is born on New Year’s Eve 1979. Six months later, Simon dies, leaving Ivory Mae widowed for a second time. Sarah comes of age during the 1990s, a time when corruption and violence in New Orleans were pervasive and problematic. Her block is changing, with empty lots and abandoned businesses. Long-term residents leave, and Ivory Mae and her family remain in “the falling-down house cradling a vision of what it could and should be.” Sarah goes to college in Texas and moves to New York after graduation, but the Yellow House continues to draw her home.
Then, the water. Hurricane Katrina. The family scatters. Two of Sarah’s brothers ride it out. Carl cuts his way through the roof with an ax and uses his shoelaces to fashion leashes for his dogs. Michael is one of 15 people surviving in an apartment in the Lafitte Projects. Ivory Mae winds up in Dallas with a large contingent of refugees. Other family members are displaced to locations where they choose to settle, the cost of returning too high or the prospect of doing so too difficult.
Without the tether of the Yellow House, destroyed in the flooding, Sarah begins to travel. A chance meeting brings her to the small African nation of Burundi, where she spends several months working as a journalist. Still drawn home, she accepts a job in the administration of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, witnessing firsthand the continued struggle of communities like her own, more than three years after the water. Sarah attempts to help her mother wade through the bureaucratic nightmare required to get a grant to rebuild, and her brother vigilantly mows the lot where the Yellow House once stood.
We are shaped by places and people, and Broom invites us into her physical and emotional space in a memoir that explores major questions, issues and events on a micro level, leading readers to consider their own lives in the process. A skilled writer, she varies her tone and style throughout the book, using oral history, traditional memoir and journalistic research to engage readers, who will find themselves pulled into the history of the Yellow House and its residents and will leave with a deeper understanding of family and community.
Family, community and memory are also important themes in Robin Page’s debut novel “Small Silent Things.” Jocelyn lives a pampered life in Los Angeles with her wealthy husband and their 6-year-old daughter, Lucy. Her days are filled with tennis lessons and lunches, and materially, she wants for nothing.
When she receives word that her mother has died, she expects it to bring closure to her memories of brutal childhood abuse. But memories begin bubbling up, and Jocelyn begins searching for ways to suppress the pain. A passionate affair with a married woman provides a distraction, but the intensity is threatening to Jocelyn’s well-being.
Simon is Jocelyn’s new neighbor, a landscape architect who fled his native Rwanda during its genocide. Simon lost his mother and his wife to devastating violence, and his daughter was ripped from his arms. Though he has a successful career in America, his past continues to haunt him. In Lucy, he sees echoes of the daughter he lost, and the friendship he builds with Jocelyn is transformative for both.
Readers see Jocelyn’s family as ghosts traveling through her story, a mother, brother and sister all dead but still a daily presence. When Jocelyn spirals into an emotional crisis, she turns to Simon for help and support, because he is the only person in her life who could understand the trauma she has experienced.
“Small Silent Things” is an accomplished debut. Page makes use of flashbacks and alternating narrators effectively, allowing readers to experience the story from the main characters’ differing perspectives. At times, it’s difficult to read because it’s emotionally raw and there’s not a tidy resolution — but life isn’t often tidy or resolved.
Both books remind readers that memory is our constant companion as we move through life and that places and people never truly leave us.