The Yellow Houseby Sarah M. Broom
A brilliant, haunting and unforgettable memoir from a stunning new talent about the inexorable pull of home and family, set in a shotgun house in New Orleans East.
Winner of the 2019 National Book Award in Nonfiction
Named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by the New York Times
In 1961, Sarah M. Broom’s mother Ivory Mae bought a shotgun house in the then-promising neighborhood of New Orleans East and built her world inside of it. It was the height of the Space Race and the neighborhood was home to a major NASA plant—the postwar optimism seemed assured. Widowed, Ivory Mae remarried Sarah’s father Simon Broom; their combined family would eventually number twelve children. But after Simon died, six months after Sarah’s birth, the Yellow House would become Ivory Mae’s thirteenth and most unruly child.
A book of great ambition, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House tells a hundred years of her family and their relationship to home in a neglected area of one of America’s most mythologized cities. This is the story of a mother’s struggle against a house’s entropy, and that of a prodigal daughter who left home only to reckon with the pull that home exerts, even after the Yellow House was wiped off the map after Hurricane Katrina. The Yellow House expands the map of New Orleans to include the stories of its lesser known natives, guided deftly by one of its native daughters, to demonstrate how enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure. Located in the gap between the “Big Easy” of tourist guides and the New Orleans in which Broom was raised, The Yellow House is a brilliant memoir of place, class, race, the seeping rot of inequality, and the internalized shame that often follows. It is a transformative, deeply moving story from an unparalleled new voice of startling clarity, authority, and power.
Winner of the 2019 National Book Award in Nonfiction
Named One of Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2019
A New York Times Bestseller
Named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review
Named one of the 10 Best Books of 2019 by the New York Times Book Review, the Seattle Times, the Chicago Public Library, the Chicago Tribune, and Slate
Named a Best Book of 2019 by the Washington Post, NPR’s Book Concierge, NPR’s Fresh Air, the Guardian, BookPage, the New York Public Library, and Shelf Awareness
Named a Best Memoir of the Decade by LitHub
“Sarah Broom’s sweeping memoir is epic in scope—a love letter to the family of twelve of which she is the ‘babiest,’ an intimate and uncompromising vision of the New Orleans that shaped her, an homage to deep roots and to blackness—all of this shot through with reverence, longing and abiding love.”—Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
“A great, multigenerational family story . . . Broom is an engaging guide; she has some of David Simon’s effortless reporting style, and her meditations on eroding places recall Jeannette Walls. The house didn’t survive Katrina, but its destruction strengthened Broom’s appreciation of home. Broom’s memoir serves as a touching tribute to family and a unique exploration of the American experience.”—Publishers Weekly
“A heartfelt but unflinching recovery project . . . Broom’s lyrical style celebrates her family bonds, but a righteous fury runs throughout the narrative at New Orleans’ injustices, from the foundation on up. A tribute to the multitude of stories one small home can contain, even one bursting with loss.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Every few years, a book comes along that teaches readers of memoir how to read and writers of memoir how to write. Calling Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House a memoir feels wrong. Somehow, Broom created a book that feels bigger, finer, more daring than the form itself. The Yellow House literally taught me how to read and write. I will never write or read about family, longing, blackness, femininity, joy and state-sanctioned terror the same way after sitting with this book. Broom narratively glides through choppy air almost in slow-motion, and when I least expect it, she digs into the ground of New Orleans conjuring the most humanely massive intervention I’ve read in 21st century memoir writing.”—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
“Gorgeously written, intimate and wise, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House is an astonishing memoir of family, love, and survival. It’s also a history of New Orleans unlike any we’ve seen before, one that should be required reading.”—Jami Attenberg, author of All Grown Up
“Sarah Broom’s book is an extraordinary example of how language can make things. Her words, sentences, thoughts as she creates East New Orleans—where she was born—move faster than you will ever keep up—but you damn sure don’t want to let go.”—John Edgar Wideman, author of Brothers and Keepers
“The Yellow House is a masterpiece of history, politics, sociology and memory. Actually, it’s just a masterpiece, period. Sarah Broom’s carefully researched portrait of a family and a place possesses the emotional vastness of a multi-generational novel, and shies away from nothing. Her pages are artfully controlled, meditative logic proofs of heartbreak, humor, devastation, celebration and rage. Broom shows what literary nonfiction—and what books—can yet do and be. I already consider her to be one of America’s most important and influential writers.”—Heidi Julavits, author of The Folded Clock
“From a singular writer, a crucial memoir of life on the margins—one that, through ruthless observation and deepest intelligence, might help reintegrate what happens in those margins into the central narratives of American life. Alternating gracefully between immediacy and critical distance, she leaves us with deep insight not just into her own family, her own community, but into governance, justice, and inequality in the round. Timeless in its telling, The Yellow House could become a modern classic.”—Whiting Nonfiction Grant Jury
“[An] extraordinary, engrossing debut… kinetic and omnivorous… [Broom] pushes past the baseline expectations of memoir as a genre to create an entertaining and inventive amalgamation of literary forms. Part oral history, part urban history, part celebration of a bygone way of life, The Yellow House is a full indictment of the greed, discrimination, indifference and poor city planning that led her family’s home to be wiped off the map. It is an instantly essential text, examining the past, present and possible future of the city of New Orleans, and of America writ large.”—New York Times Book Review
“[A] forceful, rolling and many-chambered new memoir… [Broom’s] memoir isn’t just a Katrina story — it has a lot more on its mind. But the storm and the way it scattered her large family across America give this book both its grease and its gravitas… This book is dense with characters and stories. It’s a big, simmering pot that comes to a boil at the right times… This is a major book that I suspect will come to be considered among the essential memoirs of this vexing decade. There are a lot of complicated emotions coursing through its veins. It throws the image of an exceptional American city into dark relief.”—New York Times
“The way a place looks, sounds, feels, and smells is a crucial part of how we experience and remember it. So it can be a challenge to make somewhere feel real with words alone. . . And in her memoir, The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom used her family’s story to help make sense of Hurricane Katrina’s effects on New Orleans. She assembled a personal sequence of events spanning decades, then layered timelines of the city and country’s past on top, firmly anchoring her tale in her hometown’s history.” —Emma Sarappo, The Atlantic
“The memoir from Louisiana native Broom tells the story of her mother’s beloved shotgun house in east New Orleans and the family she raised there. The house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and Broom writes about the racial and economic inequality that has haunted New Orleans for decades. Author Heidi Julavits called the book “a masterpiece of history, politics, sociology and memory.”—Los Angeles Times, “7 Highly Anticipated Books to Get You Through the Dog Days of August”
“Broom’s book is a memoir — but also so much more. The New Orleans native has written a hybrid of the most exquisite kind, part family history, part archaeological dig, part self-exegesis. It all comes back to the house of the title, a ‘New Orleans East’ shotgun dwelling that has given hope, heartbreak, shelter and transformation to decades of Broom’s family. And Broom has used it to inspire something new.”—Washington Post, “The 10 Books to Read in August”
“I’m most excited about reading The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom. I tend to love books that capture a sense of place, and I’ve always been fascinated with New Orleans. Like Jamaica, New Orleans is a destination people seek out to have a good time, but few people see the reality behind the touristy facade. Very rarely do I see a story of the people who have been in New Orleans for generations—this memoir promises an intimate, beautiful portrait of a black family and the place they call home.”—Nicole Dennis-Benn, Vanity Fair
“A remarkable journey… Her tale is one of loss, love, and resilience.”—Robin Roberts, “Good Morning America”
“Broom’s brilliant book demonstrates that context and setting are crucial to telling a story, and will ring true for anyone who also grew up in a house that loomed large over everything that happened to their family.”—Isaac Fitzgerald, The Atlantic
“Sarah M. Broom’s gorgeous debut, The Yellow House, reads as elegy and prayer. The titular house is the fulcrum for Broom’s memoir about her large and complex family. Perhaps more important, it stands in for the countless ways America has failed and continues to fail African Americans… Sarah M. Broom is a writer of great intellect and breadth. She embraces momentous subjects. The Yellow House is about the relentless divestment of wealth from the African American family no matter how hard its members work; and our government’s failure to protect its poor from predictable environmental catastrophe and subsequent trauma; and our gross neglect of poor neighborhoods; and sham promises that never materialize or are broken too easily, and the papering over of deep systemic problems by politicians and we the people. The Yellow House is also about the persistence of love and grit… There’s a young woman whose winding journey takes her away from and back to her family, as she circumnavigates the world in order to connect with herself — which means coming to the sober reckoning that some holes can never be filled.”—NPR
“One of the year’s best memoirs, The Yellow House finds an epic, fascinating, empathetic history of New Orleans within the life of one woman, her family, and the home they grew up in… The book is at once intimate and sprawling, spinning at times dozens of stories in what amounts to a vital reframing of a misrepresented community, and an urgent meditation on the American dream.”—David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly
“The title of Sarah M. Broom’s debut memoir refers to the east New Orleans home her mother bought in 1961. There, Broom was raised alongside her 11 siblings in a part of the city that became riddled with crime and poverty. In The Yellow House, Broom traces back a hundred years worth of her family history and the hardships they faced. She pays particular attention to Hurricane Katrina, which completely destroyed the family’s house. In its aftermath, Broom examines what it really means to rebuild roots and how to define a home.” —Time, “Here Are the 11 New Books You Should Read in August”
“Broom’s memoir of poverty, striving, and justice in pre- and post-Katrina-stricken New Orleans concerns rising tides, the literal ones that took her childhood home, and the structural ones, too, that, instead of lifting all, are threatening to drown. Broom has a reporter’s eye but an essayist’s heart, blending urban history of her segregated home city and her family’s attempt to survive in it.”—Vogue
“[An] unvarnished portrait of life in one of the less idyllic parts of New Orleans . . . it’s a very real, gritty and sometimes tender look at one’s family trials and tribulations across generations.”—The Advocate
“An ambitious and far-reaching memoir layered with the political and racial history of New Orleans, the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina, and her large family over half a century . . . Told in three movements that unfold with increasing tension and speed, The Yellow House is both social eulogy and a wry and loving testimony of one family’s life. Broom’s keen observations and eye for detail have rightly earned this book high acclaim.”—Juliet Patterson, Electric Literature
“NOLA Darling. Sarah M. Broom’s obsession with her childhood home in New Orleans is the focal point of her intimate nonfiction debut… This brave work delves into such issues as poor housing, subpar health care, family bonds, personal erasure and survival.”—Essence
“In her tough yet tenderly wrought book The Yellow House, [Broom] explores… the long-term effects of erasure and the price of staking a claim on unpredictable territory… The label ‘memoir’ doesn’t quite contain—or honor—the entirety of what Broom has accomplished. The Yellow House is both personal and sharply political; it’s an attempt to redraw not just the map of New Orleans but also the city’s narrative — to reset it on its foundation… Meticulously observed and expansively researched, Broom’s inquiry is an excavation… She plunges into the family’s deep, uncertain history; stories pieced together about her maternal grandmother Ameilia (‘Lolo’), her Auntie Elaine and her mother, Ivory Mae, are touchstones, pins in the new map… These elder voices, thick with the rhythm and texture of time and place, are a chorus of narrators, the forebears who navigated a stratified, racially segregated map. They weigh in, testify, spin tangents. It’s the book’s music… In New Orleans, there is a parade call-and-response refrain—a funky roll call, if you will—that asks revelers to shout out their provenance—the New Orleans neighborhood from which they hail. Where you from? The Yellow House is Broom’s luminous, literary answer to that appeal… Broom’s work is a shoring-up, a strengthening. It’s the result of tenacious naming and claiming, revisiting all the histories — formal and informal, polished and rough. She worked with great care, and with a resolute honesty leavened with grace. Readers may hear echoes of James Baldwin in the relentlessness of her inquiry, and in the sinewy cadences of her sentences… Pared down to its studs, The Yellow House is a love story. It is a declaration of unconditional devotion and commitment to place. Broom also pays homage to the relationships we protect, the ones we yearn for and circle back to; the ones that hold us and don’t give up on us, that are our living and breathing foundation.”—Los Angeles Times
Excerpted from THE YELLOW HOUSE © 2019 by Sarah M. Broom. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
From high up, fifteen thousand feet above, where the aerial photographs are taken, 4121 Wilson Avenue, the address I know best, is a minuscule point, a scab of green. In satellite images shot from higher still, my former street dissolves into the toe of Louisiana’s boot. From this vantage point, our address, now mite size, would appear to sit in the Gulf of Mexico. Distance lends perspective, but it can also shade, misinterpret. From these great heights, my brother Carl would not be seen.
Carl, who is also my brother Rabbit, sits his days and nights away at 4121 Wilson Avenue at least five times a week after working his maintenance job at NASA or when he is not fishing or near to the water where he loves to be. Four thousand fifteen days past the Water, beyond all news cycles known to man, still sits a skinny man in shorts, white socks pulled up to his kneecaps, one gold picture frame around his front tooth.
Sometimes you can find Carl alone on our lot, poised on an ice chest, searching the view, as if for a sign, as if for a wonder. Or else, seated at a pecan-colored dining table with intricately carved legs, holding court. The table where Carl sometimes sits is on the spot where our living room used to be but where instead of floor there is green grass trying to grow.
See Carl gesturing with a long arm, if he feels like it, wearing dark shades even if it is night. See Rabbit with his legs crossed at the ankle, a long-legged man, knotted up.
I can see him there now, in my mind’s eye, silent and holding a beer. Babysitting ruins. But that is not his language or sentiment; he would never betray the Yellow House like that.
Carl often finds company on Wilson Avenue where he keeps watch. Friends will arrive and pop their trunks, revealing coolers containing spirits on ice. “Help yourself, baby,” they will say. If someone has to pee, they do it in what used to be our den. Or they use the bright-blue porta potty sitting at the back of the yard, where the shed once was. Now, this plastic, vertical bathroom is the only structure on the lot. Written on its front in white block letters on black background: CITY OF NEW ORLEANS.
I have stacked twelve or thirteen history-telling books about New Orleans. Beautiful Crescent; New Orleans, Yesterday and Today; New Orleans as It Was; New Orleans: The Place and the People; Fabulous New Orleans; New Orleans: A Guide to America’s Most Interesting City. So on and so forth. I have thumbed through each of these, past voluminous sections about the French Quarter, the Garden District, and St. Charles Avenue, in search of the area of the city where I grew up, New Orleans East. Mentions are rare and spare, afterthoughts. There are no guided tours to this part of the city, except for the disaster bus tours that became an industry after Hurricane Katrina, carting visitors around, pointing out the great destruction of neighborhoods that were never known or set foot in before the Water, except by their residents.
Imagine that the streets are dead quiet, and you lived on those dead quiet streets, and there is nothing left of anything you once owned. Those rare survivors who are still present on the scene, working in those skeletal byways, are dressed in blue disposable jumpsuits and wearing face masks to avoid being burned by the black mold that is everywhere in their homes, climbing up the walls, forming slippery abstract figures underfoot. While this is going on and you are wondering whether you will find remains of anything that you ever loved, tourists are passing by in an air-conditioned bus snapping images of your personal destruction. There is something affirming, I can see, in the acknowledgment by the tourists of the horrendous destructive act, but it still might feel like invasion. And anyway, I do not believe the tour buses ever made it to the street where I grew up.
In one of these piled books that describes the suburbs, New Orleans
East is not included, but Jefferson Parish, which lies outside city bounds, and several cemeteries are. Cemeteries, as far as I know, cannot be counted as actual neighborhoods even though local lore describes aboveground tombs as houses of the dead.
On a detailed city map once given to me by Avis Rent a Car, the French Quarter has been shaded in light turquoise, magnified in a box at the bottom of the page. New Orleans East is cut off, a point beyond, a blank space on someone’s mental map. This is perhaps a practical matter. New Orleans East is fifty times the size of the French Quarter, one-fourth of the city’s developed surface. Properly mapped, it might swallow the page whole.
What the Avis map does not tell you is that to travel the seven miles from the French Quarter to the Yellow House in which I grew up, you would take Interstate 10 heading east. When this portion of the interstate opened in 1968, hundreds of great oaks along Claiborne Avenue, the black shopping district for my mother and grandmother, had been chopped down, their roots evicted. One hundred fifty-five houses were demolished to make way.
Driving the interstate, you will know that you are on track when you see signs indicating Vieux Carré final exit, but do not get off. Stay on.
After another four miles, you will arrive at the bridge we call the High Rise for the dramatic arc it makes over the Industrial Canal that connects the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain but exiles eastern New Orleans from the rest of the city. Being at the top of the High Rise feels like resting on the verge of discovery, but the descent is cruel and steep.
Exit suddenly at Chef Menteur, a four-lane highway built on an ancient high ridge once traversed by Native American tribes but that now carries cars all the way to Florida or Texas. Chef Menteur bifurcates the short, industrialized end of Wilson Avenue, where I grew up, from the longer residential end of mostly brick houses and of my former elementary school, originally named Jefferson Davis after the Confederate president before becoming Ernest Morial after the first black mayor of New Orleans. It is nameless now—a field of green grass bounded by a chain-link fence.
Even as I write this, I am troubled again by what it meant for us—me and my eleven siblings—to have to cross Chef Menteur Highway, which was then and is now a sea of prostitution with cars pulling over, sometimes partway onto the sidewalk, creeping alongside you even if you were only a child on an errand; these were mostly men in cars, making deals.
Cars could drag you down Chef Menteur without realizing it, as one dragged my sister Karen when she was eight years old. Drivers in speeding cars self-destructed on this highway. Alvin, my childhood friend, would die in this way. Someone could grab and abduct you while you stood there on Chef Menteur’s neutral ground, as we call medians. Or see you standing there when you did not want to be seen, as I would not, many years into young womanhood, when I avoided showing people the place where I lived. When I think of Chef Menteur Highway and of being cut off—from the other side of the street, from the city center, plain cut off—I think of all of this.
Chef Menteur was named after either a Choctaw Indian chief or a governor who lied too much. The name, translated from French, means “chief liar.” This is the poetry of New Orleans names. That city hall sits on a street named lost. Perdido.
Once you have exited onto Chef Menteur, drive one mile in the far-right lane. Along the way you will pass a Chevron gas station, an auto parts store, and blank billboards advertising nothing at all. You will find yourself in what has been described in articles and books appearing in the eighties and nineties as the “true land of no return,” afflicted with “overgrown yards, outdated billboards,” where “weary 1960s-era commercial architecture commingle with cyclone-fenced lots . . . and mundane 1970s residential architecture.” Where “a general malaise hangs over.”
You will pass run-down apartment complexes on your left and on your right, in areas that used to be called the Grove, the Goose, and the Gap, where growing up, my brothers made allegiances and enemies and where a bullet grazed my brother Darryl’s face in the middle of a school dance. You will pass an emptied-out building that used to be a bank where Mom and I visited the drive-through and where the teller passed lollipops with the deposit slip. You will go by Causey’s Country Kitchen, the soul food restaurant where, after the Water, a luxury bus from the parking lot lodged itself into the lunch counter.
Closer to our street, you will see Natal’s Supermarket, which is really only a corner store, where Mom sent me as a kid to buy “liver cheese” for one dollar a pound. Years later, a graduate student at Berkeley, I would discover that the liver cheese we paid practically nothing for was dressed up, called pâté, and cost nine dollars a pound.
At the light where Wilson Avenue intersects Chef, turn right at the foundation that once held a tire shop that used to be a laundromat where my older siblings survived Hurricane Betsy in 1965.
After you make that right turn onto the short end of Wilson Avenue, look left and you will see an empty lot where the gas station used to be and where Mr. Spanata from Italy built his family’s compound. Gone now. Next door to that is the cottage where Ms. Schmidt from uptown lived before my siblings Michael and Karen and Byron rented it, at different times, but where no one lives now.
Next door to that (all the houses on the short end except for one were on the left side of the street) is a concrete slab representing the house where the Davis family lived before getting fed up with the short end of Wilson and moving elsewhere.
Then you will come upon Ms. Octavia’s cream-colored shotgun house that now belongs to her granddaughter Rachelle—the only remaining legal inhabitant of the street—before finally arriving at what used to be our Yellow House.
My mother, Ivory Mae, bought this house in 1961 when she was nineteen years old. It was her first and only house. Within its walls, my mother made her world. Twelve children passed through its doors: descendants of Ivory Mae Broom and her first husband, Edward Webb; of Ivory Mae Broom and Simon Broom; and of Simon Broom and his first wife, Carrie Broom. We are Simon Jr., Deborah, Valeria, Eddie, Michael, Darryl, Carl, Karen, Troy, Byron, Lynette, and Sarah. We span the generations, born to every decade, beginning in the forties. I arrived ten hours before the eighties.
When you are babiest in a family with eleven older points of view, eleven disparate rallying cries, eleven demanding and pay-attention-to-me voices—all variations of the communal story—developing your own becomes a matter of survival. There can be, in this scenario, no neutral ground.
Yet feelings of transgression linger, the conviction that by writing down the history of the people who have come before me—who, in a way, com- pose me—I have upended the natural order of things.
When I call my eldest brother, Simon, at his home in North Carolina to explain all the things I want to know and why, he expresses worry that by writing this all down here, I will disrupt, unravel, and tear down every- thing the Broom family has ever built. He would like, now, to live in the future and forget about the past. “There is a lot we have subconsciously agreed that we don’t want to know,” he tells me. When he asks about my project, I am imprecise, lofty, saying I am writing about “architecture and belonging and space.”
“It is a problem when you are talking too much,” he says. I take his sentence down in my notebook at the moment he says it, just as he says it. I have not added a single word. Nor have I taken anything away.
In New Orleans, we tell direction by where we are in relation to the Mississippi River, in relation to water. Our house was bounded by water. The Mississippi snaked three miles to the back of us. Less than a mile away, west and south, were the Industrial Canal and its interlinking Intracoastal Waterway. Lake Pontchartrain sat two miles north. To the far east lay the Rigolets, a strait connecting Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne, a brackish lagoon that opens into the Gulf of Mexico. We were surrounded by boats, barges, and trains; ingresses and egresses—a stone’s throw from the Old Road, which is what we called Old Gentilly Road. My father, Simon Broom, took the Old Road to his job at NASA. Later, my brother Carl took the Old Road to his job at NASA. Same road, same maintenance job, different men. But the road is impassable now because at a certain point, illegal tire and trash dumps block the way. The train tracks perched above the Old Road were laid in the 1870s for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, trains that passed almost nightly in my growing up. Their clack- ing and roar were the sounds outside my window as I tried to sleep. The Old Road could, if clear, lead you to the Michoud neighborhood, where Vietnamese immigrants settled after the Vietnam War; or to Resthaven cemetery, where my best childhood friend, Alvin, is buried; or to NASA’s manufacturing plant, where rocket boosters were built for the Apollo space mission but where Hollywood fantasies are conjured now, its unused acres frequently leased as movie sets.
By bringing you here, to the Yellow House, I have gone against my learnings. You know this house not all that comfortable for other people, my mother was always saying.
Before it was the Yellow House, the only house I knew, it was a green house, the house my eleven siblings knew. The facts of the world before me inform, give shape and context to my own life. The Yellow House was witness to our lives. When it fell down, something in me burst. My mother is always saying, Begin as you want to end. But my beginning precedes me. 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.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
At the opening of the story, Sarah Broom describes the lot where the Yellow House once stood from fifteen thousand feet above, saying that from those great heights, her brother Carl, who tends the space, would not be seen.
Have you ever brought up a Google Earth image of your house from above and zoomed out? What impact did seeing your home, your street, your state, your country shrink in comparison to the world have on your perspective?
On birth order:
When the author calls her eldest brother, Simon, in North Carolina “to explain all the things I want to know and why, he expresses worry that by writing this all down here, I will disrupt, unravel, and tear down everything the Broom family has ever built.” He tells her he’d like to live in the future and forget about the past. (p. 8)
The twelfth of twelve children, Broom works hard to reconstruct the life that came before her and to cleave it to the life she knew in the Yellow House and after, to make sense of a whole and to connect it to place. What role do you think birth order plays in her desire to preserve vs. Simon’s need to forget? Who is the keeper of the history in your family and who places more value on the present?
On place vs. story:
Sarah Broom’s brother Carl, the seventh of twelve, occupies the space—keeps the space—where the Yellow House sat long after it’s gone. She describes this occupation (p. 3): “Sometimes you can find Carl alone on our lot, poised on an ice chest, searching the view, as if for a sign, as if for a wonder.” She says he is “babysitting ruins. But that is not his language or sentiment; he would never betray the Yellow House like that.”
Do some people in your family tend to place—to “babysit ruins”—and others to story? Have you ever tried to keep a place alive by occupying it after the circumstances that led you to being there in the first place ended? What do you think it means to Carl to stay?
The author refers to Hurricane Katrina throughout as “the Water.”
Why do you think she made this choice? How does the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the repetition of language affect you as a reader/viewer? Describe what “the Water” communicates to you, and how it changed over the course of the book. Do you think it will be the same for every reader?
On Chef Menteur Highway:
Chef Menteur Highway plays an integral, “sinister” role in The Yellow House. On p. 6 the author states: “The name, translated from French, means ‘chief liar.’ ”
What are the truths we think we know about New Orleans compared to the story Broom tells? What other cities present the same kinds of half truths? Have you ever stumbled into a neighborhood in a city you thought you knew that told a different story?
On John McDonogh Day:
The author tells us, “John McDonogh was a wealthy slave owner who in 1850 bequeathed half of his estate to New Orleans public schools, insisting that his money be used for ‘the establishment and support of free schools wherein the poor and the poor only and of both sexes and classes and castes of color shall have admittance.’” We are then told how the black students must wait in the heat on the day that celebrates McDonogh, while white students pay tribute to him first.
Are there widely accepted/institutionalized holidays or rituals you can think of that exclude or erase certain people, or situations in which symbolism has been deemed more important than the wellness of the participants? Thinking about the role of symbolism and ritual in cultural bonding, whose culture is McDonogh Day intended to bond, and at what cost?
On parenting then and now:
On p. 37, the author writes about children’s place in an adult world and the role adults played in teaching them the facts of life: “In those days, children did not speak openly to their parents. ‘Get out from grown folks’ business,’ you were told. Whatever we found out, we found out on our own.”
Who were your youthful “teachers”? Tell one story about a friend/sister/ brother who schooled you on something parents didn’t talk to their kids about when you were young. How solid was the advice? Parents pride themselves on being open with their kids these days, but has something been lost?
On family firsts:
On p. 57, Broom writes: “Mom paid for her house with money from Webb’s life insurance policy. She was nineteen years old, the first in her immediate family to own a house, a dream toward which her own mother, Lolo, still bent all of her strivings.”
Who accomplished these kinds of firsts in your family? Were they long-ago accomplishments or more recent? What kinds of sacrifices or good-willed pitching in were made and by whom to help make them possible?
On hard memories vs. good ones:
Broom writes almost in the same breath of harsh memories like having racial epithets hurled at them by their transient white neighbors in the trailer park, Oak Haven, across the street, and of the weekly parties Ivory Mae and Simon threw and movies projected on the not-yet-Yellow House (p. 68), “the side of the house becoming, for a night, the greatest movie screen.”
What kinds of institutionalized or other hardships are you able to square with happier memories from your childhood? What bright memories stick out as balancing more difficult times? What seem the most difficult circumstances to square for the Broom family before the Water?
On unspoken boundaries:
The author states that the adults on the street for the most part stayed out of each other’s houses (p. 87), “unless there was good cause,” like when “Ms. Octavia’s . . . husband, Alvin, died.”
Do you have friendly longtime neighbors whose houses you’ve never been in until there was some kind of emergency? What makes people draw the line at the front door with people they’ve chatted on the lawn with for years?
Likewise, during the eldest daughter, Deborah’s, wedding reception, the author says (p. 98) it “mostly held to the outdoors, but people still wandered inside, to the bathroom, and then others went in just to see what we had, Mom was convinced.” Ivory Mae felt that “the objects contained within a house spoke loudest about the person to whom the things belonged. More than that, she believed that the individual belonged to the things inside the house, to the house itself.” For Ivory Mae, this intrusion began what the author calls “the shifty settling in of shame.”
Sometimes objects simply reveal surprising details about a person. Are there objects that expose a part of you that you hold sacred and prefer to protect? Are there common objects in plain sight that reveal everything to close friends but nothing to strangers? What are the objects in the Yellow House that reveal the most about the characters?
On land development:
Talking about the land deals that never come to fruition in New Orleans East, the author writes that (p. 88): “there were more paved roads than walkways— certain parts of the East were best driven through. Landscapes communicate feeling. Walking, you can grab on to the texture of a place, get up close to the human beings who make it, but driving makes distance, grows fear.”
Are there parts of your town that have been developed in such a way that they suppress a sense of community rather than inspire it? Alternately, have you seen development that made an abandoned or wrecked part of your city or town suddenly come alive? Was there anything that could have been done differently on the swath of land in New Orleans East that would have changed the outcome?
On Simon’s death:
After Simon dies, the house, with so many children and so much responsibility, falls into chaos. Routines fall apart. The boys get in trouble. Ivory Mae has to depend on public transportation or rides to get anywhere. She says (p. 114), “I was a little pathetic at first. I needed to make myself know things.” When she finally learns to drive after a couple of failed strategies, she says, “It was my Independence Day.”
Has there ever been a time in your life that has forced you to recalibrate, to remake yourself into someone who’s brave in a novel way in order to meet challenges in unfamiliar territory or in territory that has suddenly been rendered unfamiliar by an event? What does this reveal about Ivory Mae?
On the growing-up world:
In the chapter “Map of My World,” the author describes five points on the map that make (p. 117) “my growing-up world.”
What are some of the places that you can still inhabit vividly in your mind’s eye? Why do you think those stuck and not others? Why do you think the points in the author’s growing-up world stuck with her so strongly?
On the ground:
The author speaks frequently of the “squishy earth” (p. 123) being “eaten by it.” Something as ordinary and foundational as the earth beneath her feet is routinely described as being untrustworthy. She writes: “In our child-wise minds, the seal between deep ground and our present reality above that ground is string thin.”
What real threats/facts of life did you and the kids around you know when you were growing up that turned out to be spot-on and not just boogie men or childhood exaggeration?
On selective vision:
The author is nearly legally blind and describes living in a “blurry” world until she is ten years old. When her mother discovers her vision problem, Ivory Mae buys glasses for Sarah, who up until that point has been perhaps mercifully shielded from some of the details in her life. Then, walking home from school one day, with twenty-twenty eyesight for the first time, “one detail overwhelms them all.” She writes (p. 135): “Our side of Wilson Avenue, the short end, seems a no-matter place where police cars routinely park, women’s heads bobbing up and down in the driver’s seat.” After that, she tries “not to see what is right in front of my face. Sometimes, when I want the world to go blurry again, I remove my glasses when passing by these scenes. In this way, I learn to see and to go blind at will.”
What kinds of things have you tried not to see in your own city or neighborhood? What do you think the author was genuinely aware of before the glasses?
On middle school:
The author writes about smiling “with abandon, goofy-like” (p. 136) when she is in sixth grade and proudly posing with her Edward Livingston Middle School honors sash. In the next breath, middle school goes Lord of the Flies. The “school hallways hold contests of a lurid sort.” And (p. 140) “some days we have substitute teachers who seem called in from off the street. Many times, the substitute puts a movie into the VCR that has nothing to do with the subject matter or with learning. Everything in the world feels stupid then.” Later, “We had become a horde, to be gathered and made to ‘act right,’ indistinguishable from one another.” Overnight honors students become fighters, cynicism creeps in replacing goofy pride, and order dissolves into chaos.
What moments in middle school stick out to you as being turning points? What messages do you think these students are responding to? How does Broom describe her evolution when she changes from Livingston Middle School to Word of Faith? Is Word of Faith a “good school”? Reflect, as well, on times you have moved from one social situation to another and how you could, or could not, decide how to present yourself.
Throughout The Yellow House the author repeats Ivory Mae’s words: “You know this house not all that comfortable for other people.” But further she says: “My mother was raised by my grandmother Lolo to make a beautiful home; I love to make beauty out of ordinary spaces. I had not known this back when I was living inside the Yellow House, but I knew it in my adult years when I created rooms that people gravitated to, the kind generally described as warm. Once, a friend came to one of these made places, an apartment in Harlem, and sat in the parlor looking around. The room had made him feel alive, even happy to be alive, he said. And then, ‘You have things to make a home with.’ People are always telling me this.” At the same time she writes about the shame of bringing people to the house she grew up in because of its deteriorating condition, of the friends she and her sister never make because of the inherent threat of having to invite them over. But (p. 148): “America required these dualities anyway and we were good at presenting our double selves. The house, unlike the clothes our mother had tailored to us, was an ungainly fit.”
What kinds of duality do you live with? Are some kinds easier to live with than others?
On “the Water”:
The events of the Water are described as they are occurring in real time, often through Broom’s interviews with her siblings and mother. We see Carl awaken to the storm flooding his house and flee to the attic from which, by daybreak, he has to cut his way out through the roof. Or the author narrates her brother Michael in the midst of the chaos (p. 207): “The men foraged for food and other items from broken-in stores, eventually finding an air mattress and two boats. Whatever you needed and the last thing on earth you needed could be found, it seemed, in the dirty, fetid water.” Meanwhile in Harlem, Broom is desperately scanning the news channels in search of (p. 202): “Carl’s white cotton socks pulled up high, size 13 feet.” Searching for the faces of “my beloveds.”
How does the switch in narrative tone impact you as a reader? When Michael and his group are rescued (p. 207) does it seem to you that they can truly feel safe? Can you see yourself braving “fetid water” to find food and essential supplies for your family, or imagine being unable to contact your “beloveds” in catastrophic circumstances? With this in mind, think about Broom’s trip to join her family in California at last, and hiding in her brother Byron’s bathroom (p. 210) “writing scenes into a notebook instead of feeling.” Does this differ from her description of writing prior to this? What information does Broom give us about the fate of New Orleans’s population after the storm that was new to you?
On the long-term impact of catastrophe:
During the Water, Broom writes, “All told, we scatter in three cardinal directions, nine runny spots on the map.” Even after it recedes, most remain dispersed. How do climate events like the hurricane impact families, employment, housing prices? What effect do you think this kind of scattering after climate crises has on regional culture?
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING:
Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, Notes of a Native Son, Going to Meet the Man, Giovanni’s Room
Richard Campanella, Bienville’s Dilemma
J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood
Joan Didion, Where I Was From
Bessie Head, A Woman Alone
Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse
Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place, Autobiography of My Mother
Albert Murray, South to a Very Old Place
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
W. G. Sebald, The Emigrants, Austerlitz
Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer
John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns