Little, Brown, and Company, 2010
(hardcover) 217 pages
Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. She doesn’t have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya’s visions show a powerful hurricane–Katrina–fast approaching, it’s up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm.
Ninth Ward is a deeply emotional story about transformation and a celebration of resilience, friendship, and family–as only love can define it. ~inside cover.
Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ninth Ward is proof that working from prescribed lists can be good for you. The jacket art by Shino Arihara is appealing, and the synopsis is okay, but when I’d seen Ninth Ward on the new releases shelf in the Children’s Library I passed it up. Don’t be the idiot I was and pass up this book.
Ninth Ward is entertaining and informative, and life-affirming. Rhodes doesn’t weigh the reader down with grim realities, though they are there, unavoidably. While Ninth Ward is a “deeply emotional story about transformation and a celebration of resilience, friendship, and family—as only love can define it,” it isn’t claustrophobic, as I feared it might be. The rhythmic prose are delicate. And Lanesha (protagonist/first person narrator) is of such a practical mind, she isn’t weighed down in pitiable states—how is that going to be helpful.
Lanesha is lovely. A girl with feet ever rooted in two worlds. Her late mother’s family is from Uptown and her father and Mama Ya-Ya is of the Ninth Ward. She sees the living and the ghosts (which would have sold me on the book had I known earlier). She is pragmatic and whimsical. She is a child to be cared for and a caregiver to the aging Mama Ya-Ya. At 12 she is on the cusp, both child/woman.
Lanesha is a strong and determined girl who’s take on the world around her is a blessing to the reader. Rhodes’ paints a vivid picture of Lanesha’s surroundings, and populates it with breathing characters. She does this with a poet’s hand, spare images, skillfully selected interactions. The 217 pages are not heavy with text or paragraphs or tiny fonts. I do not know how many words make up the story, but it is magnificent what Rhodes accomplishes in Ninth Ward.
The Reader gets to know Lanesha, the community, the neighbors. You get the backstory interwoven with daily interaction. Plenty of moments touch, and promise to linger, but the days (chapters) are progressing toward something. It isn’t just Hurricane Katrina or the aftermath…the flooding.
Rhodes skillfully relays the events leading up to the Hurricane, Mama Ya-Ya predicting the storm, the weatherman reports, the preparations, the evacuations, the fear, the anxiety of those stuck where they are… She is informative and interesting, and unyielding in her balance of parallel lines, of the preparation that goes into surviving, and not just storms such as hurricanes. That what you need is Love is not a trite statement in Ninth Ward; it is not kitsch.
The world can be a hard place sometimes, Lanesha. You have to have heart. You have to be strong. Parents want their children to grow up to be strong. Not just any strong, mind you, but loving strong. (144)
Lanesha is a resplendent daughter, a daughter rooted in the old ways but birthed in the the present; learning and becoming the signs of both. Her mother lingers, but she is raised by her community, influenced by the 82 year old Mama Ya-Ya and the young school teacher Miss Johnson; a remnant of the past and a reminder of the future.
Lanesha is a beacon, a hopefulness, an elegantly designed bridge both strong and beautiful. She is the Ninth Ward, she is a girl represented, she is New Orleans, she is all the heritage of her people past and present.
And Lanesha isn’t the only character worthy of an essay, or housing symbolic attributes.
The pacing of the story slows, housing chapters in a day and then two. The build up to the storm sweeps you into the heart of it, but it is after the hurricane hits that another level of suspense is revealed in the creeping of the water, the waiting for rescue. The stillness in the pacing creates anxiety. The time Lanesha and other—(why would I spoil this) spend on the roof is a natural enough shift, but noticeable. If Ninth Ward would be both Realist (magical or otherwise) and Allegory, Rhodes maintains coherence in her story telling technique—despite my frustrations. I was in the latter pages, racing toward the ending, wanting to have an epilogue—what happens to Lanesha, and TaShon and …
I was running out of pages and the daylight was dragging itself out. Yes, I realize Patience is a virtue with which I struggle. Alas, the Reader has to stick with Lanesha. A peek at the ending tells you nothing.
While the pacing shifts, necessarily, the rhythmic narrative voice of Lanesha carries the Reader. The ending does not disappoint. The journey, the story from the beginning up until the end, predicts the trajectory of an epilogue (as there is no “epilogue”). Rhodes leaves you caring about the outcome, artfully instilling Hope. And Hope carries the reader into dreaming the future for Lanesha and the Ninth Ward. Hope, and the confidence that Love may actually be the key to survival. In the closing of the story, in Lanesha, Rhodes seems to say: look what love built, how can we not move forward with confidence.
Somewhat of an aside:
I’d just finished Blue Balliett’s The Danger Box and I had to smile when (in Ninth Ward) Lanesha picks up a purple pen with which to write. I thought about what Zoomy and his Gam (in The Danger Box) said about Purple, that it was the color of believing.
And like Blue Balliett, Jewell Parker Rhodes’ story relays a strong belief in the necessity of perspective/perceptions in/through her characters.
Folks say, “School gives his mother a babysitter so she can work.” I don’t believe that. Andrew is just a different smart. Like if you say, “The world is flat,” Andrew’s mind cuts it up into squares. Like the way my eyes see things that others swear aren’t there. (28).
The differences in seeing things is important to survival, to the community, to the greater world. Great things can be accomplished through the unexpected, especially when they are equipped with a loving foundation, something both Zoomy and Lanesha have. Children and Adults alike should be reading these books.
Ninth Ward is recommended starting at Age 10… I agree, not due to themes, but to comprehension and inherent value. This is a great Middle-Grade book—well-suited.
Also, Ninth Ward begs to be read aloud—all books should, but this one is particularly good for it.
check out: The Happy Nappy Bookseller’s interview with Jewel Parker Rhodes, as I plan to in just a moment…