Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Twelve-year-old Lanesha has lived with Mama Ya-Ya since she was born: Mama Ya-Ya was the attending midwife, and when Lanesha's mother died giving birth, there was no one else to take her in. Lanesha knows that she has living relatives, and she knows that they don't want her. That hurts, but because of Mama Ya-Ya—and because of the close-knit Ninth Wardneighborhood they live in—she has grown up with love:
"Better you be an orphan, your family thinks. Better crazy Mama Ya-Ya raises you," she says, sucking air through her false teeth. "Fine. I'm old school. Don't care nothin' about folks who dishonor traditions as old as Africa. I'll be your mother and grandmother both."
And she is. I love her more than anything in this whole wide world. (2-3)
Lanesha's mother came from money, and her father didn't. But that isn't why her Uptown family doesn't want her—they don't want her because, like Mama Ya-Ya, she has the sight. Everywhere she goes, she sees ghosts. Sometimes she even sees her mother, though unlike a lot of the other ghosts around, her mother has never talked to her.
Lanesha loves math, and she wants to be an engineer. She pays attention to symbols and signs: in school, as parts of an algebraic formula or a story in English class; and in real life, when things she sees and hears serve as advice, or portents of the future. For some time now, Mama Ya-Ya has been having dreams about a storm that's coming—a big one. But while the dreams make it clear that New Orleans will make it through the storm itself, there's something about her dreams that there's more to it than that... that the danger they face may come after the storm.
This book is entirely lovely. I wouldn't have predicted that a book about Hurricane Katrina could be so quiet or so warm. But it is. Lanesha knows, even before the storm comes, that she's going to lose the woman who has raised her sooner than later—look at how she describes her in the first chapter, even:
Mama Ya-Ya closes her eyes. She does that a lot now. She reminds me of a clock winding down. Her head tilts; her body relaxes in the chair like a balloon losing air. (8)
And yes, of course that makes her sad, and of course it makes her scared. But that knowledge doesn't come close to sending her into a tailspin, before OR after Katrina hits. Ultimately—and beautifully—it makes her stand up taller than she even had before:
I think of all the people Mama Ya-Ya had taken care of in her life—probably hundreds, thousands, with herbs and potions for arthritis, fevers. She's birthed babies, and when they grew up, helped birth their babies.
And there's me: 365 days x 12 years = 4,380 days that Mama Ya-Ya has cared for me. No one gave her money. Not even welfare. She could have asked but she didn't.
"Love is as love does," Mama Ya-Ya says.
So, I have to decide. Prepare or not.
It's about love, it's about family, it's about friendship, it's about trust. It's about faith and belief and kindness and hope and fear and trying and failing and trying again. It's about helping other people even when you don't have a whole lot to give. It's about knowing you are capable, and also knowing that it's okay to accept help. It's about a girl who loves science and who knows that magic is real, who appreciates the strength of butterflies and who wants to build bridges.
In poking around the internet, looking up various lists and awards and reviews to include below, I came across this line in the Kirkus review: "...romanticized depictions such as this one threaten to undermine our collective sense of the true plight of pre- and post-Katrina Ninth Ward residents." I entirely disagree.
Even before the storm comes, Rhodes gives nods to some of the struggles in Lanesha's life: that one of the ghosts she sees regularly used to be a schoolmate of hers, a boy who died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time; that she and Mama Ya-Ya don't have much money, only splurging on favorite foods at the beginning of the month when the social security check comes; that Mama Ya-Ya never legally adopted her, so she doesn't know what will happen to her when Mama Ya-Ya dies; that she is an outcast at school because she has the sight. And then, when evacuation is ordered:
Then, everybody quiets when the mayor comes out. He looks straight into the camera and says everybody should get out. "Now. Leave New Orleans. This is a mandatory evacuation. Mandatory."
Mama Ya-Ya bites her lip, shakes her head, muttering, "How can it be mandatory if I don't have a way to go?" (90)
Then, when the storm comes and the levees eventually break, the fact that she doesn't know how to swim because no one in the Ninth Ward has pools; TaShon's description of his experience in the Superdome; the screaming and cries from outside after the storm; their desperate journey up and up and up and ultimately out; the other people she sees on rooftops, calling for help and then eventually going silent.
It's all there. Just because it's quiet doesn't mean the tension isn't there. Just because Lanesha stays calm doesn't mean the danger isn't there. Just because Lanesha stays positive, stays hopeful, refuses to give up—that doesn't mean the stakes aren't high, and it doesn't mean that she doesn't know it. A story doesn't have to be grimdark to have weight.