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'The Yellow House' Connects Place, Memory And Self-Knowledge

Sarah M. Broom's gorgeous debut, The Yellow House, reads as elegy and prayer.

The titular house is the fulcrum for Broom's memoir about her large and complex family. Perhaps more important, it stands in for the countless ways America has failed and continues to fail African Americans.

Broom is the youngest of her mother Ivory Mae's 12 children. Widowed at age 19, Ivory Mae invested her savings in a shotgun house — the yellow one — in East New Orleans. Until Texas millionaires moved in with big development plans and even bigger hype, no one knew quite what to call this area. "But namelessness is a form of naming."

Immediately, the house began sinking in the back, because the land had been a former cypress swamp, "too soft to support trees or the weight of three humans."

Within a few years, Ivory Mae married Simon Broom, a man 19 years her senior. They each brought children to the marriage and, together, had more. Shortly after they wed, they were struck by a devastating hurricane in which levees blew, 70,000 were left homeless, and hundreds more were marooned on roofs. This was Hurricane Betsy, roaring through New Orleans 40 years before Katrina, to similar effect.

Simon was a hardworking man who never quite finished improvements to the Yellow House. He died suddenly when author Broom was an infant, leaving her devoid of paternal memories. For the second time, Ivory Mae became a widow, this time, with a dozen children to raise on her own, the Yellow House her 13th.

In prose rife with longing, Broom maps her parents' lives before her, the forgotten neighborhood off Chef Menteur Highway where she grew up, and the rise and fall of "the Water" — as she refers to it — Hurricane Katrina, that took everything away. Raised by her loving and attentive mother, fractious and caring older siblings, and grandma, Broom was both confined and defined by the Yellow House, which steadily deteriorated as she grew up, even as Ivory Mae worked several jobs and kept it immaculately clean. What Ivory Mae couldn't do was keep up with the repairs, or the rats, or the insects, or the rain. "You know this house not all that comfortable for other people," Ivory Mae would say; words which held, "the gut-wrenching fact, the discovery even, that by not inviting people in, we were going against our natures. That is shame."

Broom felt the urge to leave — for the streets, for college and journalism school — for Harlem and a job with O Magazine, to Burundi where she skirted danger and held up a mirror against the people she lived among that pointed back to New Orleans.

Broom was away when Katrina struck: "That absence, my not being there physically, began to register in me on subtle emotional frequencies, I can see now, as failure." She chronicles the traumatic impact on her family: their diaspora to California and Texas and other parts, along with harrowing rooftop escapes.

In Katrina's aftermath, clearance trucks haul away the Yellow House without prior notification.

Broom comes back and takes a communications job with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. She spends time with her beloved brother Carl, a groundskeeper at NASA, who returns night after night to the empty plot where the Yellow House stood, babysitting the bare ground in an all but abandoned neighborhood, keeping the lot mowed because "the land could be taken away from us for any and for no reason — American History 101."

Nothing seems right. Even with her connections, Broom can't deliver her mother's reimbursement for the vanished house (that took seven years with multiple sets of lawyers "losing" papers). She feels helpless toward her city and disconnected from her roots. She leaves that job and begins researching this book, which is to say, her family history and the many tentacles of New Orleans that it touches. She can find zoning and housing records in offices all over town, but no clear guidance back home. For where is home? Her family is far flung and, as in Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped, her friends are dead, or in prison, or otherwise gone.

In its unfolding of the fraught bonds among family and land and loss, The Yellow House resonates as well with Lauret Savoy's poetic memoir Trace, which connects America's vast and varied landscape with the lost places of Savoy's mixed-race ancestry. So too, with J. Drew Lanham's The Home Place.

Sarah M. Broom is a writer of great intellect and breadth. She embraces momentous subjects. The Yellow House is about the relentless divestment of wealth from the African American family no matter how hard its members work; and our government's failure to protect its poor from predictable environmental catastrophe and subsequent trauma; and our gross neglect of poor neighborhoods; and sham promises that never materialize or are broken too easily, and the papering over of deep systemic problems by politicians and we the people.

The Yellow House is also about the persistence of love and grit. There's a mother who never flags or fails to support her children: "My mother buried her rage and despair deep within, underneath layers and layers of poise." And there's a young woman whose winding journey takes her away from and back to her family, as she circumnavigates the world in order to connect with herself — which means coming to the sober reckoning that some holes can never be filled.

If Broom has bitten off the whole world and cannot quite swallow it, we can only hope she will continue to mine this material with the same sensitivity and insight demonstrated in The Yellow House. She understands her questions are "at base, unanswerable."

"Remembering," she writes, "is a chair that is hard to sit on." Nevertheless, we will eagerly await her further interrogations.

Martha Anne Toll is the Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund; her writing is at www.marthaannetoll.com, and she tweets at @marthaannetoll.

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