It’s hard to say, even 370 pages later, what the yellow house means to Sarah Broom. As a substantial structure about which to tell a story of a place, it’s not much to look at—a shotgun house in New Orleans East, ultimately ravaged by Katrina and razed to the ground. For most of the second half of Broom’s memoir it’s not even standing at all. Except it’s still in her soul, a useful anchor for difficult memories. Remembering is hard. As Broom puts it, “Remembering is a chair that is hard to sit still in.” (223)
The Yellow House got a lot of attention when it came out last year, ending up on numerous Top 10 Lists for the year. It’s clear to see why. Broom tells a story that captures the many layers of New Orleans and the house is an innovative tool to get there. It begins with the primordial wetlands that became New Orleans East in the 1960s when developers saw opportunity. It continues with highways that carve up the neighborhood, preventing the development of real community. The early dreams that brought many African-American families to this eastern outpost soon fade and the devastation has come before the hurricane even hits.
There are also many layers to Broom’s family. The home her mother owned and in which she and her many siblings grew up, shares the story of the place and it is, in part, a story of shame. “Shame is a slow creeping. The most powerful things are quietest, if you think about it. Like water.” (146) Even when Broom moves to New York and Burundi(!), the house and its weight stays with her.
When Katrina comes, we see it through the eyes of Broom’s brother, Carl, who remains in the city through the storm. The family is scattered throughout the country from Texas to California and I wondered why we haven’t heard more about the refugees now become New Orleans diaspora. Such widespread dislocation is surely one of the great demographic stories of our day.
There is a dreamy quality to The Yellow House even though much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from Broom’s homemade recordings of conversations with relatives. The house is and isn’t. New Orleans is gritty realism and an illusion built for tourists. The past is long gone and ever present.
I came to the end wishing that I had more to hold onto. The characters never seem fully formed. The city just as mysterious as always. Broom’s trajectory still unclear. But perhaps that’s the greatest realism of this memoir because reality is always hard to hold, hard to explain, hard to see. Like the Water that comes in the dark and unsettles every foundation.