When I first met author, Jewell Parker Rhodes, I got stuck on the fact that we have almost the same first name. It's not something that happens to me often. Growing up I was smart enough to know that if I could survive the teasing ('Jewelle the fool' was one chant) my name was going to be an advantage in adulthood. And so it has.
Meeting Jewell made us instant friends, that and that the book she wrote which first attracted me was about vodun queen, Marie Laveau. Jewell made the mysterious and maligned Laveau come alive in ways that no history book ever had.
Jewell Parker Rhodes' newest book is for young adults and called Ninth Ward. It's the story of a young girl living through Hurrican Katrina in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. I visit that city regularly and love the literary life that is always bubbling there. The Saints and Sinners LGBT Writers Conference and the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival draw writers from around the country who come to soak up the history and make some of their own. There's been a valiant effort (despite government neglect) to get the city back on its feet so it can attractthese and other conference-goers and tourists who are its primary livelihood.
But the scars still remain--in the blocks upon blocks of thick, tropic-like vegetation that has been allowed to grow over what used to be people's homes. And in the faces of the people themselves...wariness, anxiety, disappointment. The children too are afraid of what comes next, who will protect them from the disasters to come since the US government failed and continues to fail so miserably.
Jewell's book is an amazing evocation of the wondrous spirit of a young girl and her prescient grandmother as they try to survive this disaster--which as New Orleanians say: "Was not natural but man made." The failure of--what the government knew--were inadequate levees and the poor rescue and recovery plans were a trauma from which the residents of the Ninth Ward are still suffering. In what could be a desperate or bitter story I found the spiritual heart that makes it easier to look into those faces back in New Orleans. Jewell is able to bring to the surface the resilience that the storm buried so deep and covered over with fear.
I don't often read books for young people but the cover I first saw in promotional material grabbed me and for once, lived up to the story itself. I love having another writer out in the world with (almost) my name, especially one who's so wonderfully talented. We all should keep New Orleans in our hearts, they need us, and this book helps us understand why.
The literary history of New Orleans is alive and well and can not be drowned by storms or politicians or oil companies!