Reaching far beyond the boundaries of memoir, Sarah M. Broom revisits the world of her childhood, decimated by Katrina, as she searches for the meaning of home and family.
Sarah M. Broom’s evocative, addictive memoir, The Yellow House, is more than the story of a girl growing up, or of her sprawling African American family, or even of the eponymous shotgun house where they all lived. It’s more than the story of her native New Orleans in the years before and after Katrina. This capacious work captures more than the particulars of a place or a state of mind. It infiltrates the very state of the soul, revealing a way of life tourists never see or, as the destruction of the hurricane and the post-storm neglect would underscore, pay any mind.
The youngest of 12 children born over a span of 30 years in a blended family, Broom begins this story with her clan’s circuitous journey to New Orleans East, a once sparsely populated outland that grew in population and promise when, at the height of the Space Race, NASA began building rocket boosters there and other industries followed. Broom’s father, Simon, who worked maintenance at NASA, died when she was 6 months old, and her mother, Ivory, was left to fend for herself and the children still living in their yellow shotgun house that Ivory had bought for $3,200 in cash when she was 19.
By the time Broom was born, NASA and much of the industry had all but abandoned the blighted area. Despite chronic financial struggles, Ivory proudly strove to keep up appearances. Indeed, one of the most fascinating features of the narrative is Broom’s subtle exploration of class distinctions within the African American communities of New Orleans.
When Katrina hit in 2005, Broom was grown and gone—working at a magazine and living in Harlem—but she has assembled the often-harrowing testimony of her family members who survived the cataclysm. Sacrificed by the powers that be, the largely black neighborhoods in New Orleans East suffered devastation. In the aftermath of Katrina, when the ruins of the Yellow House are deemed in “imminent danger of collapse” and slated for demolition, Broom realizes that the house “contained all of my frustration and many of my aspirations, the hopes that it would shine like it did in the world before me.” The house, she comes to see, held more than the memory of her father or the past. It sustained the very concept of home. And she understands that without the physical structure, she and her family are now the house.
The Yellow House is a lyrical attempt to reconstruct home, to redraw a map that nature and a heartless world have erased. The melodies of Broom’s prose are insinuating, its rhythms as syncopated and edgy as the story she has dared to write. With a voice all her own, she tells truths rarely told and impossible to ignore.