Tuesday, October 6, 2020
October 6, 2020: Recent Reads: The Yellow House
[Last October I had a lot of fun sharing and AmericanStudying some of my recent reads, and it brought out great responses and nominations for a crowd-sourced weekend post. So this year I wanted to do the same, and would love to hear what you’ve been reading for another weekend list!]
On three books I’d put in conversation with Sarah Broom’s stunning multi-generational family memoir.
1) Salvage the Bones (2011): I wrote about Jesmyn Ward’s wonderful second novel in this post on representations of Katrina, and would still argue that Salvage is the best literary engagement with that hurricane that I’ve encountered. But The Yellow House is definitely in that conversation, with The Water (as Broom usually calls Katrina) serving first as a consistent, foreshadowed undercurrent beneath her family histories and then exploding into a central role in the family’s lives and world in the book’s second half. Given that the floodwaters destroyed the family’s titular New Orleans home, it’s fair to say that Broom’s book is ultimately as much about memory as Ward’s—in this case, not just memories of the storm, but also and especially of the generations and decades (captured in that titular house), the stories and secrets, that lie buried yet exposed on every page of her book.
2) Heavy (2018): Speaking of multi-generational family stories and secrets, I don’t know of any recent memoir that engages with such themes more potently than Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. Heavy features a somewhat more standard memoir narration and structure than Yellow House, using the first-person voice, perspective, and story of its author as a window into broader stories and histories like those of his mother, his Mississippi home, and race in America. But while the relationship of Sarah Broom (as author and as narrator) to her book and its subjects is significantly more ambiguous and fraught than that, I would nonetheless argue that the two memoirs similarly turn the genre, as well as their focal identities and families and American identity itself, inside-out, laying bare the ways that memory and story both construct and deconstruct every individual, every family, every home and community.
3) The Grandissimes (1881): I know, one of these things is not like the others. But you know me well enough to know that I believe there’s great value in putting older cultural works in conversation with 21st century ones, and George Washington Cable’s sweeping, multi-generational historical novel—one that focuses on a particular New Orleans house to open up its themes of family, community, race, and history—is to my mind the closest literary parallel to Broom’s memoir that I’ve read. Since Cable’s book goes back to the first years of the 19th century and Broom’s takes us up through 2019, that means between these two works we’ve got more than 200 years of fraught, contested, secretive, vital American history and story—and with Ward and Laymon in the mix as well, we’re a long way toward a reading list that would rival any collection of American books.
Next recent reads tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Recent reads you’d share for the weekend post?