The Nitty Gritty: The Yellow House

The pull to a specific place has occupied my thoughts for the better part of 5 years now. This idea of place as a piece of who we are is what drew me to Atlanta. This city called me until I could no longer ignore it. I had to be here, in a way that I couldn’t describe to most people.

Atlanta resonates through me–my whole being–even though I didn’t grow up here. It is home in a visceral sense. I am happy here because I belong in the very deepest sense of that word.

So, I’ve often wondered if other folks feel the same way about place–that it takes on a life of its own, shares space in our psyches. Consequently, this wondering brought me to both Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (by choice) and The Yellow House (completely unwittingly).

I knew 3 things about The Yellow House before I read it: it was a memoir; it won the National Book Award; and it centered on a family that lost their home in Hurricane Katrina.

I’ll tell you up front that I’ll try to avoid spoilers–and also that I’m not sure there are spoilers for this book. Because it isn’t so much what happens in Sarah M. Broom’s family or to the house they inhabit, but the lens through which she views it that makes the book.

The Yellow House both is and is not a Katrina book. For instance, if you read the fiction work Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward–THAT is a Katrina book. The whole narrative centers around the storm & its impacts. While the yellow house meets its ultimate demise in Katrina, the story begins decades before the storm… and continues afterward, because families and people continue on with or without the structures they’ve called home.

The book is more broadly about New Orleans. About what it’s like to grow up black and poor in a city that holds an almost magical sway over most of America. Broom weaves New Orleans history–including an analysis of the pervasive colorism in New Orleans–throughout her narrative. All while exploring the pull of this place that she grew up in. She leaves and returns to New Orleans, looking for something. But she’s never quite sure what. She’s pulled in particular back to New Orleans East, where she grew up–which has long been neglected by the city and devolves completely after Katrina decimates the infrastructure in a part of town even more flood prone than the rest of the city. The fate of New Orleans East is tragic and infuriating. But it’s fascinating and instructive to watch Broom navigate these complex emotional spaces. For me, there was something simultaneously intimately familiar and ultimately unknowable about her quest.

This book is going to leave you with more questions than you had when you started. Broom will wrap nothing up tidily for you. And, if you’re an introspective sort, she’ll have you picking at your own family history, your sense of place.

Ultimately, The Yellow House begs the question: What constructs us? Is it family? Place? Home? Ourselves?

I turned 45 this week. And I wonder if that has anything to do with the pull of this book for me. I’ve been thinking a lot about family and roles we play in our family of origin versus the self the we construct outside those bounds. And, for me, that also calls up the places I grew up (all over Florida with parents born in the Deep South) and the places I remained connected to throughout my childhood and now choose to claim (the South, Atlanta, and South Georgia). The Yellow House gave me footing to think about these things & introspect in a way that felt important and a little esoteric.

This book laid out for me issues of family, place, and self I’ve been pondering–and allowed me to see that there are no easy answers. That there are always more questions. And that they are worth asking.

The Nitty Gritty: Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

I’ve been thinking a lot about place lately: how where we are from constructs who we are. And I’ve been drawn to books that explore place as internal landscape.

My mother’s family is from South Georgia. Although I grew up in Florida, I always considered myself a dis-placed Southerner. According to my Northern oriented friends, my dad talks like a banjo. Growing up, my mother insisted we say “sir” and “ma’am” to adults, which most adults in South Florida found wildly unnecessary and sometimes offensive.

We didn’t fit there. And I knew it.

I moved up to North Florida as soon as I was free to do so (four days after high school graduation). If you’ve never been to North Florida, it’s really just an extension of South Georgia.

And there, I felt at home.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is an in-depth exploration of the South Georgia landscape of my mother’s people. A place I visited multiple times as a child. The place we buried my grandfather not too long ago.

Author Janisse Ray explores not only what it was to grow up poor and deeply religious in the rural South, but she also details–with shockingly clear imagery–the landscape and wildlife that exists in South Georgia. Her description of deforestation, what we’ve lost that it will take a Herculean effort to reclaim, almost brought me to tears.

She pulls no punches about the South. But she also explores the “why” of the place. Her depth of understanding of both people & nature makes her a tremendous ecology writer.

If books about place speak to you, this is a fine one. As a Southern nature lover, it’s an imperative read.