Man-Made Disasters in Recent Katrina-themed Novels:
Landfall, My Sunshine Away, & A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
Reviewing Landfall (Forest Avenue P, 2015), My Sunshine Away (G. P. Putnam, 2015), and A Thousand Miles from Nowhere (Lee Boudreaux Books, 2016) together brings surprising satisfactions.
The first two texts—Landfall and My Sunshine Away--have post-Katrina settings and camera-angles (if you will) that display just how wide was the swathe of destruction along the Gulf Coast and throughout the coastal states, from Baton Rouge to Alabama. The third, A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, focuses is the immediate aftermath of the storm and the year following for a New Orleans evacuee in Virginia.
The stories of the first two novels start to the eighties—going back to when the world had already changed but to where (places and communities) the alteration has not been realized: the University of Alabama campus, where one young father-to-be attends school (Urbani) and a middle class suburb of Baton Rouge, where another adolescent male, physically awkward and socially inept, is growing up with some hard knocks (Walsh). Although the focus of A Thousand Miles from Nowhere is the year after Katrina, Brown’s text too travels in time—even further back, to the seventies when Henry Garrett and his sister are growing up in New Orleans with an unhappy stay-at-home mother and a professor-father, who specializes in jazz music and hides a deep depressive streak from his children.
All three texts bravely address the question of unequal justice and unprecedented displays of prejudice after Katrina and the levee break. One of the horrors of white privilege that the texts expose is this: it does not protect individuals from suffering; it prevents those who adopt or embrace it from making connection to all others and from thus working to alleviate everyone’s suffering. Urbani’s epigraph from Martin Luther King notes, “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in single garment of destiny.” Each text follows these threads of destiny.
Specifically, Walsh’s text highlights the effects of the explosive growth in Baton Rouge following the New Orleans exodus, while Urbani examines the police blockade on the Crescent City Connection. Brown emphasizes the inequality affecting minorities in all areas of the country in 2005 and 2006 and suggests that the fates of homeless peoples in the flooded metropolis were never even seriously considered.
This review ultimately employs a materialist feminist lens to examine all three “p-k novels.” All three texts are dominated by fathers’ secrets and by their communities’ complicity in these untold tales and their concomitant neglect of the affected mothers’ needs. Despite the emphasis on fatherhood infusing all three books, each searingly depicts the amazing fragility of lives women lead—how vulnerable are females—mothers, daughters, aunts, and family friends in a patriarchy that reigns on rules and so-called rationality—or rationalizations—rather than from the heart.
Were I to review My Sunshine Away on its own and out of social context, I would compare it to Yeats’ “Prayer for My Daughter.” I have long wondered how a father’s prayer for his beautiful young son would compare—especially when the fears of the twentieth century were compounded by the uncertainties of the twenty-first. However, both Yeats’ and Walsh’s devotions are animated by their contexts.
Yeats’ poem, in fact, could serve as an epitaph for all of the novels because the women in the stories, the narrator’s mother (along with daughters Hannah and Rachel) in My Sunshine Away, Gertrude and Cilla and their daughters Rose and Rosy in Landfall, and Mrs. Garrett and Mary, the mother and daughter team in A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, all struggle against the odds that the loss of a husband, partner, and father figure provokes in a patriarchal society.
This was not really the review I intended to write, but it would be unconscionable to ignore the fact that three literary p-k novels choose to explore the intricacies of intimate relationships, the precarious joys of parenting, and the roles first of childhood perception and then memory in those engagements—all under the egis of recounting a story of the storm.
In both Landfall and A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, the father’s desertion stems from mental illness, and our consideration wants to avoid any indication of blaming the victim; therefore, it is important to note that American society has historically seen mental illness as a stigma and that stigma has made seeking treatment difficult—particularly for men in a patriarchal society.
In “Understanding Stigma Through A Gender Lens,” Canadian Women’s Health Network, 11.2 (2009), Carolyn Shimmin reveals how detrimental this stigma can be,
A sex- and gender-based analysis also helps us understand the high rate of suicide among men. Growing up, boys encounter what William Pollack termed the “Boy Code”—a set of expectations about how boys and men should think, feel and act: “be tough,” “don’t cry,” “go it alone,” and “don’t show any emotion except for anger.” These characteristics of traditional masculinity and the stigma attached to any male who does not abide by these characteristics can cause men to perceive mental health problems as weakness and thus not seek the necessary help.
Overall, the World Health Organization has concluded that, “Gender stereotypes regarding proneness to emotional problems in women and alcohol problems in men, appear to reinforce social stigma and constrain help seeking along stereotypical lines. They are a barrier to the accurate identification and treatment of psychological disorder.”
That those whom we demand be strong cannot always be so is one of the tragedies of all three texts. That their families attempt to deal with the cruel sleights of stigma is their substance and plot. Neither Gertrude nor Cilla (Landfall), the unnamed single mother in Baton Rouge in My Sunshine Away, nor Mrs. Garrett (A Thousand Miles from Nowhere) is equipped to deal with her loss or her family’s new situation. None receives meaningful help from any family member except her co-victims, her children.
In Landfall, Gertrude and Cilla both suffer from mental illness of their own. Cilla actually is diagnosed as bi-polar; she causes her daughter moments of unspeakable angst and later anger as Rosy must be her mother’s care-taker from a young age. Gertrude’s depression, while not histrionic, is equally damaging. Urbani depicts it well, “By the time Rose could walk, Gertrude moved slowly and smelled old. An odd mix of chemicals and moldering flowers hovered always about her, thanks to a daily spritz of Beautiful onto wrists infused with carbon toner. But she didn’t care; she didn’t even notice. Her attention had long since shifted away from herself” (16). Gertrude shuts down her life and “refused to indulge any recollection of her youth. Instead she looked ahead. . . .She not only expected Rose to do well; she expected her daughter to live out her own abandoned dreams” (16).
When Landfall opens, the single mother and daughter have struggled in this internecine and symbiotic relationship for eighteen years. Gertrude is awakened from her own misery by Katrina and decides to gather cast-off clothing and drive it to Lousiana for the relief efforts. She insists her recently graduated daughter accompany her.
Landfall, like My Sunshine Away, starts with an unsolved crime. When Gertrude wrecks her car and dies on a rural highway in Alabama, the now-orphaned eighteen-year-old Rose decides to “search for the identity of the girl her mother killed” (21).
My Sunshine Away focuses on one suburban Baton Rouge neighborhood’s life before and after the rape of a teenager in 1989. The story is narrated by one of the suspects, our unnamed narrator, who follows his admission of his status with two quick sentences: “Hear me out. Let me explains” (3).
It is the eloquence of vocabulary and syntax of said suspect that makes My Sunshine Away a remarkable novel.
That articulacy and his perversion. Although his philandering father is able to excuse his son’s predilections, this reviewer, like the narrator’s mother, does find his obsession with neighbor Lindy Simpson—both pre- and post-rape—abnormal, if not aberrant. Given the fact of his fixation, the narrator’s abilities to depict himself as a non-threatening boy next door (accomplished partly through the self-conscious comparison of himself and all other teenage boys at the time and to Jeffery Dahmer), to speak for his generation, and to describe his natural and man-made environments are unparalleled even if they are reminiscent of the solipsistic ruminations of a Walker Percy protagonist.
In “Every Little Hurricane,” published in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven, in 1993, Alexie depicts nine-year old Victor’s ability to deal with his life in a HUD home on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit. The child describes everything as a storm—poverty, emotions, racism, oppression. The boy records, “Fronts, Highs and lows. Thermals and undercurrents. Tragedy” (7). As he recalls news images of hurricane damage, he reflects on the destruction.
Memories not destroyed, but forever changed and damaged. Which is worse? Victor wanted to know if memories of his personal hurricanes would be better if he could change them. Or if he just forgot about all of it. (4)
His is also the dilemma of protagonists in My Sunshine Away, Landfall, and A Thousand Miles from Nowhere. Their personal hurricanes have coincided with a literal storm, with a life-changing, epoch-altering event, and it is their fate and responsibility to sort through the dear and the detritus and find a way to go on.
Although deus ex machinations seem to start A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, Brown’s characters do feel that conflation, culmination, and catharsis.
Through initially small exchanges with an innkeeper and a deputy to longer conversations, protagonist Henry is broken out of his isolation.
And Henry managed to tell this women everything there was to say—that he’d fled the hurricane and wound up in Virginia, that wife was here somewhere though he didn’t know where or if she’d even want to see him, that his sister was in Baltimore but they hadn’t spoken for more than a year, that he did not have a car now or money or a telephone, that he did know what to do, that this man Hughes was dead, that hundreds and hundreds of people, maybe thousands and thousands, he didn’t know how many, were dead in New Orleans, that maybe all the ones who had managed to survive had lost their homes, lost everything, that he felt helpless and angry and confused and sad. So terribly sad. All the time, he wanted to shout but didn’t. (120)
Henry establishes connections in the small town. The woman to whom he tells his grief responds immediately, “We’ve been praying on this, Mr. Garrett. The women’s group at my church—every one of us . . .And now here you are, Mr. Garrett. Here you are” (121). Before Harry can gather his thoughts, she concludes, “We’ll care for you . . . Don’t you worry one bit. We’ll care for you” (121).
This group, officially known as the Marimore First Presbyterian Women’s Auxiliary, calls itself the Hounds of Heaven. It is efficient. Marge, to whom he has confided, assures Henry with language that echoes, gently mocks, and kindly ameliorates the hurricane’s destruction, “You give me one day, and you won’t know what hit you. We’ve got a phone tree, Mr. Garrett. We’ve got movers and shakers in our women’s group the likes of which you’ve never seen” (121).
And between the mysterious innkeeper Latangi who has insisted on lodging him for free, and the sheriff’s secretary, Marge, Henry is propelled back to New Orleans to pick up the pieces and forward into his re-newed life in small-town Virginia.
If My Sunshine Away recalls Walker Percy, then the small-town setting, the geographic locale, and the emphasis on class struggle in A Thousand Miles from Nowhere pay homage to Sherwood Anderson and his sixteen years in Virginia. Brown’s fictional Marimore recalls Anderson’s Marion, and the townspeople’s interactions evoke those of Winesburg.
If an improbable event starts A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, then it must be noted that Landfall could be accused of resting on two tired tropes—siblings separated by birth and the tragic mulatta. In this case, while neither character fares terribly well growing up in a single-parent household—specifically, a high-school-only-educated mother’s home—in the eighties South, heroine Rose may be able to find her way out, while Rosy, who has all of the attributes of intelligence and beauty of her half-sister has no real hope of advancement. Despite EOE and scholarships, destiny seems fated against her. Even if both plot and message are heavy-handed, there are powerful moments in Landfall. The scene describing Rosy’s first encounter with her mother’s mental illness is poignant. SHOW
The scene depicting the family’s escape from their house during the hurricane is as compelling as any this reviewer has read in fiction, news accounts, or memoir.
And the stories of rescue Rosy receives are as powerful in their selection of ordinary detail as the rape scene is powerful by its faceted depiction of cruelty and brutality.
Each of the texts has a happy ending or sorts—or a sort-of happy ending. All who have sought to make reparations and to find redemption have done so; however, recovery and renewal takes conservative turn, and the loss of the mothers is never fully assuaged. The grand themes of racial unity and reunions in Urbani and Brown seem forced and somewhat superficial, but with lesser reach and ambition, Walsh is able to wrap up his Red Stick story like a virtuoso as the unexceptional adolescent improbably, but believably becomes a caring family man and citizen.
Reviewed by M. L. Byrd
Merry Byrd is the founder and editor of NOLA DIASPORA. She teaches composition, women’s studies, and environmental humanities at Virginia State University and serves as book review editor for the journal FEMSPEC. Her most recent non-fiction essay “Floods” appears in Situate.