Nothing had, at the moment I asked, been written about the lives of the people who lived there. The East was not too young for history; it was just that in the official story of New Orleans, its stories and people were relegated to the sidelines, deemed not to matter as much, the place not having earned — through demographics or economic success — a spot on the cartographer’s near-sighted map.
Sarah M. Broom’s memoir, The Yellow House, chronicles her family’s lives in connection with the title house, which stood in the outer district of New Orleans East until Hurricane Katrina damaged it irreparably and uprooted the family. It’s a meticulously constructed narrative, weaving together the threads of her big clan’s life (she’s the baby of twelve children in a blended family). Although it reads novelistically at times, elsewhere it feels like oral history, studded with the words and thoughts of her relatives as they tell parts of their stories.
This richly layered generational saga begins with her grandmother, Amelia, called “Lolo,” and moves on to her mother, Ivory Mae, and her two siblings, Elaine and Joseph. Telling their stories, Broom segues into Ivory Mae’s relationship and babies with her first husband, Webb, and eventually her marriage to Simon Broom, Sarah’s father, and move into the yellow house.
Broom was born six months after her father died suddenly. His death left her mother widowed for the second time, a haunting tragedy that filters through their lives and echoes the insecurity they feel in other ways. They have a physical roof over their heads, but it’s in bad condition and getting worse. It’s here where one of the book’s main themes, shame, starts to trickle in.
Shame is a slow creeping at first, a violent implosion later.
The Yellow House is truly an epic, and it encompasses so much more than a family narrative. I think the best description I can even give is that nearly every time I picked it up, it felt almost like reading a different book. There were so many stories and shifts and yet they all work brilliantly and build up an overall effect that’s incredibly powerful.
Broom explores complicated concepts of race and economic disparity, of the lives and identities of those at New Orleans’ fringes contrasted with the city’s glittery, romantic reputation. She examines these ideas while telling her own story, spotlighting a few significant moments, of how she left her hometown and worked at a magazine in New York and eventually a stint working in Burundi, which I found one of the book’s most moving and meaningful sections.
Wanted only to go, make a life, even if temporary, in distant elsewheres. Did not yet understand how movement—rivers, oceans, new sky— could be a placeholder, just another distraction holding one apart from the self.
The question of identity and whether it is or isn’t tied to a place is a strong one (“I did not yet understand the psychic cost of defining oneself by the place where you are from”), as is the fierce love for family coupled with the need to distance oneself and form a separate identity. These are well-trodden topics but Broom handles each one so thoughtfully and meaningfully that it all feels like something new in her hands.
You could never know all that happened when your back was turned, which, ironically, is the appeal of leaving, too. What the gone-away-from-home person learns are not the details that compose a life, but the headlines—like Alvin is dead, or the house is gone. Look like nothing was ever there.
Her writing is as lyrical as it is gut-punching. It’s hard to believe this is a first book, it’s so polished. There were a few sections with some scenes I found a bit confusing, or subjects or moments I wished had more time devoted to them, but these are small quibbles. It’s powerful, it’s painful, it encompasses so much universally while still being deeply personal. It’s no surprise it’s the National Book Award winner in Nonfiction this year, it’s wildly deserving. Here are some quotes I found lovely, because there’s not much else I can say to it justice.
“Absences allow us one power over them: They do not speak a word. We say of them what we want. Still, they hover, pointing fingers at our backs. No place to go now but into deep ground.”
“There was a special prayer and altar call for backsliders like me who had tasted of the divine but shunned it for the pleasures of the world, which for me were the enticements of living in my head, thinking about men and cities in countries I had never seen, things that lay not in the present but far ahead.”
“Remembering is a chair that it is hard to sit still in.”
“It is the return not the going away that matters, I always wanted to say. That painful snapping back into place.”
I had no home. Mine had fallen all the way down. I understood, then, that the place I never wanted to claim had, in fact, been containing me. We own what belongs to us whether we claim it or not. When the house fell down, it can be said, something in me opened up. Cracks help a house resolve internally its pressures and stresses, my engineer friend had said. Houses provide a frame that bears us up. Without that physical structure, we are the house that bears itself up.
The Yellow House: A Memoir
by Sarah M. Broom
published August 13, 2019