Brown Baggers Book Club met virtually on Thursday, October 21 to discuss The Yellow House by Sarah Broom, winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2019.
Our group, as a whole, had trouble with the book. Many of our readers did not enjoy the book, did not finish it, or felt bogged down. Some said it did not resonate and felt boring. Others called it important and insightful but too long. A common complaint was the number of names bouncing around on the page (this list of characters by chapter might help). More specifically, readers commented on particular scenes or events that, in their minds, didn’t fit with the heart of the story: the author’s adventure in Burundi, for example.
So why did this book win the award? Judges had this glowing praise for the book (National Book Foundation):
“If Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House was simply an indictment of state sanctioned terror on the Gulf Coast, it would be a stunning literary achievement. Broom however shows us that such an account without breathtaking rendering of family and environment is, at best, brittle. The Yellow House uses reportage, oral history, and astute political analysis to seep into the generational crevices, while reveling and revealing the choppy inheritances rooted in one family in the neighborhood of New Orleans East.”
One reader also shared this interview (Lit Hub) with Broom which helps to soften my own impatience for the slow meandering start, wading through seemingly unending exposition. We also have to recognize that, while this is a personal memoir, Ivory Mae stood out to our readers as a favorite presence on the page — for the dedication she maintained for each of her children, for her complexity, tenacity, and talent — and she would not have existed in such full form without the structure Broom chose to employ. As one reader said, the people live in the house, and the house lives in them. Like building a house, or visiting a house for the very first time — especially a house like this one, consumed with familial shame over the dilapidation — the story is at times tentative, and always methodical:
“I was thinking about the book as a sort of house, that needs a specific architecture. When you go to someone’s house, you don’t just bust in and end up in someone’s bedroom, right?”
Quite frankly, it’s easy to put this book down, because it’s a lot of work. It is not a page-turner; even the narrative surrounding Katrina was not the nail-biter experience it might have been (for example: the film The Impossible); instead, Broom focused on how Katrina changed everything — the physical landscape of the Earth and displacement — how the way they felt ignored by the government post-Katrina mirrored the way they felt ignored locally pre-Katrina, when their neighborhood succumbed to salvage yards, drugs, prostitution, and pollution.
But the word “fascinating” was used in our discussion more than once, as were the words “extraordinary circumstances.” A handful of our readers have read and/or discussed this book multiple times, which speaks to the way it can be experienced over and over again, each time discovering new layers. The book also does something that is increasingly difficult to do in the world of storytelling. Broom actually writes novelty. Previously, there was very little information on New Orleans East; Broom is literally creating the literature here, filling in gaps, working in many roles: writer, storyteller, historian, cartographer, anthropologist, investigator, reporter. She writes about this on her website, calling it her “artist statement”:
“My writing attempts to fill in the ‘blank spaces’ on the map, to redraw a map that includes those neighborhoods and streets and cities whose people are deemed not to matter, whose voices do not make it onto the official recording, those made to play supporting when they are, in fact, lead. My attention rests on those places that mapmakers often deem ‘too young for history.’”
Brown Baggers will meet to discuss My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante on Thursday, November 18. Please email Krista at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and/or register here. Our annual book selection meeting will be held December 16; you can register here.
For Further Exploration:
Mama Day by Gloria Naylor
The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor
Treme (“set in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. A group of residents strive to rebuild their lives without losing sight of the music and cultural traditions that make them, and the city, so unique”)
This New Yorker article by Sarah Broom, titled “The Yellow House,” published in 2015