Rose, Rosy & Katrina

Landfall-CoverThe return of the Northwest rain puts me in the right frame of mind to write about “Landfall,” a novel set in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

I picked up the book last month after hearing the author, Ellen Urbani, describe her debut novel and the extraordinary research and writing process that went into producing it.

Long story short: Urbani attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and frequently visited New Orleans as an undergraduate. She drew on personal experiences as well as journalistic and literary resources in writing about two young women – one from Tuscaloosa, one from New Orleans — whose lives collide violently in the days after the killer hurricane.

That personal experiences would inform a novel is easy enough to grasp. It was the other part of the process that left me slack-jawed. As a divorcee with two young children, Urbani wrote religiously for two hours twice a week while they were at preschool. Not only that, she did prodigious Internet research literally from her bed in the early morning hours before the kids awoke.

Add in the reading of several books and dozens of government documents and she was able to write authoritatively about the historic storm that walloped New Orleans and surrounding areas a decade ago. In other words, Urbani wrote about Katrina without being on scene during or after the flood.

It took a year of research, two years of writing and another year of polishing before she completed the manuscript in 2009. Along came a new relationship, marriage and a move to the country, so she set the book aside until last year, when she sold it to a local publisher, Forest Avenue Press.

I had my doubts about Urbani’s methods, especially when she explained how she went about trying to make sure the dialogue she made up for African American characters rang true. She called a few girlfriends still in the South and asked to speak with their domestic help to get the patois of the language — another thing that made my raise my eyebrows.

She also hired an African American copy editor who didn’t change a word and told Urbani she’d gotten the colloquialisms just right. As further endorsement, everywhere she went on tour with the book, including New Orleans, black readers told her she had nailed it, Urbani said.

As a non-Southerner, I accept their collective judgment. As for the novel itself:

Ellen Urbani

Ellen Urbani

The plot: No spoiler alert necessary because the story begins with the tragic auto accident that kills one young woman named Rosy and the mother of the other young woman named Rose. Succeeding chapters are told mostly through flashbacks as we get to know both young women and the circumstances of their upbringing.

The characters: Both girls are 18, fatherless and living alone with their mothers, Rosy in New Orleans, Rose in Tuscaloosa. Rose, who is white, and her mother gather up coats and other supplies to donate to hurricane survivors and begin driving west to Louisiana. En route, they strike and kill Rosy, who is black and hitchhiking to Alabama in hopes of getting help for Cilla, her mentally ill mother, after they escape their flooded house in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Rose’s mother, Gertrude, also dies in the accident, leaving the teenager on her own and yet determined to find out who Rosy was and how she came to be traveling on the same road.

The writing: Urbani does a nice job of recreating a particular time and place, especially the hellish, lawless conditions inside the Superdome as desperate residents sought food and shelter. She effectively portrays a regional culture unfamiliar to me, something I always appreciate in a book, though I found the prose florid at times.

The story is told in chapters alternating between Rose and Rosy, who share common traits of intelligence, independence and resourcefulness even as they confront differing challenges, including the relationship each has with her mother.

The final chapter provides a surprise ending – the realization that the girls did have a connection in their young lives.

Overall: Urbani said she set out to write a novel about race, class and morals. Sure enough, all three themes are addressed. The overlapping stories are told from a female perspective, with the girls and their mothers at center stage. In that sense, it’s also a novel about the bond between mothers and daughters — and that was illuminating as anything else for this male reader.

All in all, “Landfall” was informative and entertaining, a solid first novel. It’s good but falls short of “great” in my estimation. Knowing the backstory of what it took to produce the book, though, I have nothing but admiration for the author. At the same time, I sense Urbani has room to grow. I’ll be interested to see what she comes up with next.

Final words: When I spoke to Urbani this week, she told me: “I’m almost glad I had to do it the way I did it, without getting my emotions in it too much. The physical and emotional distance from the city was almost a gift. It felt like too much would have sat upon me.”

Drawing on her past work counseling cancer patients, she added: “Often times, it takes someone not being involved in an experience to move through it.”

Photograph: www.ellenurbani.com

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5 thoughts on “Rose, Rosy & Katrina

  1. I just finished it a couple of days ago. Thanks for your insights. The story was very troubling, yet tender in parts. It brought back my anger over the government’s abandonment of the people of NOLA after Katrina. I wept several times. I am glad I read it and really appreciate the story behind how she wrote it. Nice work, George. I won’t forget this novel…..

  2. Thank you George, and Rebecca. Before I wrote my own books, I never considered what a gift readers give to authors: investing time, attention, reflection in/on our thoughts and words. I am truly grateful to you both for sharing your days, and your opinions, with me. Troubling yet tender is exactly how I hoped LANDFALL might be perceived; it was very much the tenor of my own life at the moment I wrote it. That aspect of hope, alive even in our darkest days, is the thing I cling to. It is the thing that brings us together, and lifts us up.

    • I wanted to mention one more thing that you said during your reading at Broadway Books that impressed me — and gave me insight to your character.

      “The greatest gift we can give to anyone else is empathy — the attempt to imagine what their life might be like. I write about people and things I want to know more about.

      “For me, the question (in writing “Landfall”) was not so much did I get it right but did I endeavor to get it right.”

  3. Pingback: Postscript: November | Jim Ryan

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