Ninth Ward ~ Jewell Parker Rhodes

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Truth be told, I was drawn to this book by the cover. It’s so lovely. The beautiful pastels and the young girl in the boat holding a lily as if it can keep her afloat or guide her to safety. It also alludes to a hint of magic with the houses floating over the flood waters. I was interested to read about the experiences of a young girl during Hurricane Katrina. I was lucky enough to see this cover at ALA Midwinter and thanks to the library marketing folks at Little, Brown I was able to snag a copy.

Ninth Ward tells the story of Lanesha during the week that led up to Katrina. Her mother died in childbirth and Lanesha has been raised by Mama Ya Ya the midwife, because her Uptown relatives don’t want to have anything to do with her. Like Mama Ya Ya, Lanesha can see the many ghosts that hang around New Orleans including, much to her dismay, the ghost of her mother. As the storm approaches, Mama Ya Ya begins to get very nervous. She knows that the Hurricane will pass and they will all be safe, but that there is something else that is a greater danger. Yet her sight will not tell her what it is. In the meantime, Lanesha an outcast among the children in her neighborhood, befriends a boy named TaShon, who is also the subject of ridicule, because he is small and was born with 12 fingers. Lanesha helps TaShon rescue a stray dog from the local bullies and takes in the stray for TaShon who can’t keep it at his house. This budding friendship feels so sudden to Lanesha, but will be indispensable in the days to come.

Rhodes does a wonderful job presenting this story and the harrowing events of Hurricane Katrina in a way that is appropriate to the age group. As many tragedies force young people to pass on to adulthood whether or not they are ready, Hurricane Katrina is a compelling event for this coming of age story. Although it does have a satisfying ending thanks in part to the magical realism that fits flawlessly into the narrative, Rhodes doesn’t gloss over the tragedy. She may leave some details to the reader’s imagination, but the reader gets to experience first hand the terror and the courage that young people like Lanesha must have felt.

Because the book covers such a short period of time, it moves quickly and I was immediately drawn in by the characters: Lanesha, Tashon and Mama Ya Ya and by the neighborhood itself. I am a fan of magical realism, so I loved how that worked, it didn’t feel forced and though I’ve never been to New Orleans, ghosts hanging around the neighborhood seemed like a small step away from reality. It gave the story a sense of hope and a way to illustrate the love that is so much a part of Lanesha’s world and what ultimately saves her.

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