Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

“The TV says the governor has asked the president to declare a state of emergency.  The National Guard has been called up.  Now the breathless weatherman is saying the hurricane will hit Mississippi and Louisiana. Both.

I’m feeling ANXIOUS: FULL OF ANXIETY. GREATLY CONCERNED, ESPECIALLY ABOUT SOMETHING IN THE FUTURE OR UNKNOWN.

I’m feeling more anxious because I looked up unfathomable in my pocket dictionary.  UNFATHOMABLE: BEYOND UNDERSTANDING, IMPOSSIBLE TO MEASURE.

In math, I learned everything can be measured.  Air, water, wind. Volume. Velocity. Depth.

So why not a hurricane? There, I’ve said it.”

Lanesha lives with her adoptive grandmother, Mama Ya-Ya, in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.  The pair may not be blood relatives, but are closer than any family-they are all each other has in the world.  Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya also share powers: Lanesha can see ghosts, and Mama Ya-Ya gets visions about the future.   When Mama Ya-Ya’s dream visions predict a hurricane, Lanesha tries hard to prepare for the coming storm.  She’s nervous, though; Mama Ya-Ya can’t fully understand the end of her visions about the storm, and the news anchors say it will be the worst they’ve had in decades.  When Hurricane Katrina finally hits the city, Lanesha has to be brave in order to protect everything that she loves.

I’d been wanting to read this book for so long, and it was even better than I expected!  Jewell Parker Rhodes’ depiction of the love inherent in Lanesha’s assembled family is so tender.  Mama Ya-Ya, Lanesha, and later, a stray dog and TaShon, Lanesha’s first real friend, are warmly devoted to each other, despite the stresses of their lives. Lanesha herself is a brilliant young woman; she’s compassionate, inquisitive, and wants to grow up to become an engineer.  I especially loved her passion for science and mathematics; she’s advanced enough that a teacher of hers gives her the teacher’s edition of a pre-algebra textbook for her to work through independently. It’s great to see a female character excelling in math, especially when presented in such a natural way.  Way to defy a stereotype!

And really, that is what this book is about-we all were exposed to so much press about the violence and poverty in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that an untrue and unfair depiction of the city’s poor developed.  Jewell Parker Rhodes gently dismantles this image.  For example, Lanesha has the ability to see ghosts. (Don’t worry, this isn’t a ghost story, and the ghosts are benign or helpful, so younger readers are still good to go with this story.)  At school, she sees the ghost of an older classmate, one who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time during a gas station robbery-a subtle reminder that assuming all shooting deaths are gang-related, and that poor people are violent is just that, an assumption, and not true.  The inhabitants of Lanesha’s poverty-stricken neighborhood are humanized in this story; they look after each other and share their few resources.  This Ninth Ward isn’t ridden with senseless violence, neither before, nor after the hurricane.

The magical realism in this story (Mama Ya-Ya’s visions and Lanesha’s ghosts) is seamlessly integrated with the actual events of the hurricane, and it gave it another layer of appeal.  It also kept the book from being just a recounting of the storm.  I loved how it was used to connect Lanesha with her mother, who died in childbirth. This is just a lovely book, on so many levels.  Not only does it give some good perspective on the hurricane’s devastation, appropriate for a younger audience, it also demonstrates the legitimacy of non-traditional families and deconstructs stereotypes about young women and poor minorities. Rhodes tells us a story about the strength of love, even amidst destruction, and it is absolutely beautiful!

Happy Reading!

Rhodes, Jewell Parker.  Ninth Ward. Little, Brown: New York, 2010. 217 pp. Ages 10-14.

Author’s website: http://jewellparkerrhodes.com

Normally, when I’m reading, recommendations just come to me and I feel what books would be similar.  However, I don’t know of others so much like this, though I wish I did, and I’m getting ready to explore.  Zora and Me, is a wonderful one that I have read, a former winner of the  Coretta Scott King award.  It has the same feel of warmth and family-love, but it is set in the deep south during the Jim Crow era, so it is more historical.  We could also try Turtle in Paradise or Three Times Lucky.

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