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The Yellow House

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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.

376 pages, Hardcover

First published August 13, 2019

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About the author

Sarah M. Broom

2 books361 followers
Sarah M. Broom is a writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Oxford American, and O, The Oprah Magazine among others. A native New Orleanian, she received her Masters in Journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2004. She was awarded a Whiting Foundation Creative Nonfiction Grant in 2016 and was a finalist for the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction in 2011. She has also been awarded fellowships at Djerassi Resident Artists Program and The MacDowell Colony. She lives in New York State.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,701 reviews
Profile Image for Brina.
876 reviews4 followers
November 28, 2019
Happy Thanksgiving to all my Goodreads friends. Each year to mark this distinctly American holiday I attempt to read a book that is American in scope. Over the course of 2019 I have read a number of memoirs that have pieced together Americana person by person. Some have been admittedly better than others, yet all share the American ideal of achieving their own personal dream. This year’s National Book Award winner for nonfiction is The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom. Part memoir and part social history, Broom in her debut book pays homage to New Orleans, a city that her family has called home for generations.

Sarah M. Broom dedicates her book to the three women who have most shaped her life: her maternal grandmother Amelia “Lolo” Soule, her aunt Elaine Gant, and her mother Ivory Mae Broom. Each of these women raised a family within the nexus of class, race, and gender in a city where all three have played a key role in shaping its politics. Sarah is the baby of her family, the youngest sibling of Simon, Jr; Deborah, Valeria, Eddie, Michael, Darryl, Carl, Karen, Troy, Byron, and Lynette. Married to Edward Webb and widowed and then married to Simon Broom, Sr., Ivory Mae was a mother to six children in her early twenties. Living in a relative’s apartment was taxing on all involved yet in early 1960s New Orleans there were few housing opportunities available for African Americans. Then the mayor decided to open up New Orleans East, Inc and the Broom family moved to 4121 Wilson, known to the older siblings as the green house. The family would eventually double in size, Simon would expand the house doing do it yourself improvement projects, so, by the time Sarah was born on New Year’s Eve 1980, 4121 Wilson had become the yellow house, a piece of property that Ivory Mae would cherish for the rest of her life.

Seeing her friends and nephews turn to drugs, Ivory Mae enrolled Sarah in Word of Faith private school. At home to her closest friends and family, Sarah is known as Monique, yet in school, she is Sarah, holding onto duel roles and identities in and out of the yellow house. Ivory Mae knew that in a city as racially charged as New Orleans, she would be forced to give her children racially neutral names. Few people outside of 4121 Wilson knew that Sarah was Monique and vice versa. It was Sarah who attended college, graduate school, and obtained good journalism jobs outside of New Orleans. Most of the rest of the family stayed behind, living in the cocoon that was New Orleans East, tethered to their matriarch Ivory Mae. Some children like Michael and Karen got professional jobs, others like Carl worked blue collar, and Darryl was strung out on drugs and was rarely allowed in the yellow house. This all changed with Hurricane Katrina, which Sarah Broom refers to as the water.

Sarah moved many times for school and work, as far as Burundi and as close as the French Quarter. While she knew that New Orleans was home, she needed to travel the world to obtain a sense of place that guided her home. Ivory Mae instilled a sense of pride in her clan. She inherited this behavior from her mother Amelia who had taught her children to dress impeccably and garden and cook like a professional. Even when the Broom family had little money for food or bills, they looked their best and the yellow house appeared as sparkling as possible. Meanwhile, Sarah was living in New York when Katrina hit New Orleans. Her older siblings evacuated to California, Arizona, and Texas and never returned home. Only her mother and Carl who treasured the yellow house the most remained behind. In 2011 Sarah as received a grant to write about her family’s history and moved back to New Orleans. By this point, the yellow house had been washed away by Katrina, and Sarah lived in the French Quarter. Seeing the disparities between the improved Quarter and abandoned New Orleans East, Sarah only understood the importance of home after no house remained behind for her family to root itself for subsequent generations.

Today, the Broom family remains scattered. Only Carl and Ivory Mae live in New Orleans. The Yellow House is an ode to a city and home to a family that has persevered despite its environment. Even through tragedies and natural disasters, the Broom family has survived, with matriarch Ivory Mae being its glue. It took Sarah, known as Mo to her siblings, eight years to turn her interviews and notes into a book that pays homage to generations of her family. The Yellow House is a modern American treasure and is deserving of this year’s National Book Award. I look forward to seeing what Sarah M. Broom publishes in the coming years.

4+ stars
Profile Image for Michael.
657 reviews968 followers
January 28, 2020
In her debut, The Yellow House, Sarah Broom insightfully examines the history of New Orleans East, the city’s predominantly Black, working-class suburb, through the lens of her family’s fraught attempt to build a stable life there. Broom begins her work by sketching detailed portraits of her grandmother, parents, and older siblings, before recounting her turbulent youth spent in New Orleans East in the titular yellow house. The last of twelve children, she grew up fatherless, with an overworked mother, inside a home in desperate need of repair; for much of the book she considers how her struggles growing up embodied those afflicting her community. Later, she muses about the devastation and displacement Katrina wrought on her family, and she describes her ongoing effort to reckon with her past and understand her relationship to the city she fled upon coming of age. In mesmerizing prose Broom contemplates everything from what it means to belong to a place to how to tell the story of a city, and she connects her family’s experiences to broader social conflicts and cultural trends. The memoir’s many things at once, and always brilliant.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,380 reviews519 followers
October 28, 2020
This book doesn't feel like a memoir. It reads like a fairly dry history of a large Black family and their house, before and after its destruction by Katrina. Although the author puts herself in the center of this account, she mostly steers away from personal feelings and introspection. I did learn about New Orleans East but was never fully engaged.
Profile Image for Libby.
569 reviews160 followers
January 20, 2020
‘The Yellow House’ by Sarah M. Broom is an absorbing debut that is both memoir and commentary about her New Orleans East family in a pre and post-Hurricane Katrina world. Broom’s writing style is inviting, filled with facts, and enough descriptive detail to keep me engaged. The first 100 pages establish her family’s particular history in New Orleans East which was being heavily developed throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

“The newspapers fell hard for New Orleans East. Here was a story with possibility for high drama involving men and money and wetlands, dreaming and draining, and emergence and fate.”

It was the space age, an age of progress, a time when men could reclaim wetlands and turn them into a prosperous space. It was also when Simon and Ivory Mae would marry, each bringing children from previous relationships and combining them to make a family, then going on to have more children together (twelve in all of which the author is the youngest). Ivory Mae would pay $3,200 for a house on Wilson Street with the life insurance money from her first husband’s death. In 1964, the merged family moves in. It is through this house that Sarah M. Broom's writing brings focus to bear not only on her family’s time and place in history but also on the place itself, its political significance and the author’s own rising social and political awareness.

“The Yellow House” inspires musings about my own origins, my own first homes that I grew up in, as I am sure it will for most readers. Homeownership was a dream that many aspired to and Ivory Mae attained it at nineteen years of age while her own mother, Lolo, was still saving to buy a home. The couple bought truckloads of gravel and stone to build up the back, where it had sunk down. Ivory Mae planted a garden. She collected special pieces of furniture while Simon collected dogs. Ivory Mae made curtains and decorated her house, defining herself as a unique creative person. She made her children’s clothes, sewing a label in them that said, “Ivory’s Creations.” While Ivory Mae cared about the beauty of her home, Simon was more interested in how much things cost. Isn’t that a friction that comes to many marriages? Can we really afford this? Will there be a cost that might be over and above the tag price?

Broom divides her book into four parts, which she calls movements. The second movement is “The Grieving House,” which is the house in its descendancy, after Simon’s death and Sarah M. Broom’s birth. I love how she titles one of the chapters “Map of My World.” For me, this entire section is a map of Broom’s physical and emotional world. Ivory Mae studies to become a nurse and Sarah M. Broom finds that she loves to play school, doesn’t mind tests, and “loves the smell and feel of paper.” Her sister Lynette goes to Schaumburg Elementary for gifted students. Broom’s bad eyesight is discovered and corrected and for the first time, she can see the leaves on the trees. Maps and music are apt metaphors for the intellectual and creative growth that is occurring in Sarah M. Broom. I also find it interesting that as the house enters its stage of decay, Broom is entering ascendancy, a stage of active growth.

Perhaps Broom’s discovery of what she terms “interiority” was a guiding angel, although it’s easy to see that familial love and belonging gave her a strong sense of security and identity. “Writing, I found, was interiority, and so was God,” Broom writes. In her favorite room of interiority, Broom found that she thrived. The interior of the house, on the opposite spectrum, was deteriorating to the point that the family who still lived there never invited people in anymore. They were ashamed of the poor plumbing, exposed wires, the temporary stairs that became permanent, the kitchen cabinets without doors (Ivory Mae made curtains), and many other things that showed a lack of money for maintenance. Broom writes that this shame was a creeping thing; she compares it to water. Broom does a good job describing shame, its depth, and its width; shame seems to cover a lot of territory, hiding the good and becoming treacherous. She writes, shame is “a warring within, a revolt against oneself. It can bury you standing if you let it.”

There is so much to recommend this book. The descriptions of each family member added to my love of the narrative. Her relationship with her brothers is inestimable. Broom describes the devastation and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and how it affected her family members still living in New Orleans at the time. The slow cleanup and the marginalization of people who lived in New Orleans East is illuminating and horrifying. These were the people who worked in the French Quarter, the highly touted tourist district, the people who had kept it alive. Sarah M. Broom is definitely an author to watch. There are moments when her beautiful descriptive prose really shines through. Voted one of “The 10 Best Books of 2019” by the editors of The Times Book Review, “The Yellow House” by Sarah Broom is an exceptional debut. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for D.  St. Germain.
28 reviews70 followers
December 26, 2019
Now that this book has won the National Book Award and been named one of the ten best books of 2019 by the New York Times, hopefully it will find a bigger readership / get some additional attention (it was disappointing to see it left off the Goodreads Choice Awards memoir choices.) That is, some attention that isn’t half-cocked misquotery or reflections on the how this book isn’t really a memoir. What is a memoir anyway? Why read one?

Memoir should reckon with what a life means and how what someone faces can teach them, and us, about our inner workings as well as the world. Readers read to have transformative experiences with their own minds, to encounter ideas they don't in their everyday lives. It is even more powerful when a memoir can help us connect personal experiences to a larger American history.

A writer of talent and mind understands that events shape individual destinies, and by writing about these events they can help readers deepen their sense of connection to history. It can also help people understand our greater shared experience as a country and show the ways that our lives are interwined. We love stories of World War II because we can use it to understand the history of our grandparents; as the individual struggles in a WWII story we can tie into our own personal histories of our families and those we know, help understand their decisions and what events meant for the outcomes of their lives. As Broom writes in the the Yellow House, “we are all born into histories, existing before us. The same is true of places. No place is without history.”

Yet somehow the business model of memoirs (in the US) seems to be that publishing houses buy/ publish memoirs simply the author is famous (see: Goodreads Choice Awards for memoir). These books about famous people (often not written by the famous people at all) assume that most readers are interested in reading memoirs only because they seek to catch a glimpse behind the closed door of fame; that people seek the backstory to the clickbait headlines in their newsfeeds, to have the scoop on stories they already know. That memoir, by the famous person, is a work of exhibitionism driven by narcissistic desire to shine the spotlight on oneself even more. But just as fast as these sorts of stories are consumed, they flame out - fame being fleeting in a short-attention-span society. There’s always more waves of surface information flowing in, sweeping out the old. These books are matches, lighting the darkness for only a moment. (Then there’s that subspecies of paper pulp that is ghostwritten politician memoirs, a prerequisite, it seems, for candidates aspiring to higher office).

So Sarah Broom isn't famous. Also, a number of reviews of this book sensationalized minor occurrences within it while also questioning whether it was actually a memoir at all, lazy, surface-read reviews mostly failing to grasp the enormity of the task the book undertakes. The attitude that this book is not a memoir but a strange mishmash of literary forms (to paraphrase the embarrassing review by a major outlet) because it embraces a larger worldview and isn't a narrowly-enough told story about how just one person made a life that just that one person is living. It is so American and so recent a perspective to take, this idea that our individual destinies are driven only by us as individuals (not by our families, or communities, or economies), and what matters around us is not as important as what we do to shape or control our world.

But as I read The Yellow House I reflected on how it was possible that memoir could be anything other than this; how anyone could really tell the story of themselves without also considering context. After all how do we understand ourselves without understanding our family and how they got the way they are? Is our family pain not our own pain? How do we understand ourselves if we don’t understand how our environment and community shaped us? How it provided us opportunities or denied us them? Can we understand our lives without examining our greatest challenges?

The Yellow House is a powerful work of social memoir, the history of a notorious city, a disaster, and a large family over 60 years. The story is told through a house in New Orleans East, a marshy outpost of the city where Sarah’s mother, a 19 year old widow and single mother of three, purchases the house in 1961 with the modest life insurance payout from the death of her husband. Ivory Mae would soon remarry a man named Simon with three small children of his own, and together they would have six more, bringing the total child count to twelve in the two bedroom house. Six months after the youngest was born, Simon would have a brain aneurism in the bathroom and leave her mother Ivory Mae to raise all twelve by herself in said house.

Sometimes a house is just a house. But here it is the thing that keeps everyone together and tears everyone apart. With housing today being so difficult for so many, this book also underscores how simply having a place to be can mean everything.

The house of this book is a device to tell not just the story of a family, but to tell the history of segregation; a notorious city; opportunities for generations of African Americans during and after the Civil Rights movement; hopes, dreams and what was actually possible for a family grasping for those opportunities in that segregated, notorious city; and of course, as a means to tell the story of the greatest natural / human disaster of recent American history, of a storm and its political aftermath that cleaves both that house and the family completely. Sure, the book is about these things; but it is also about someone grappling with the question: who am I amongst these tremendous events, amongst these people? What kind of life does this make for me? What does it mean to have a home? And what should I do with this knowledge, much of it I maybe didn't really want to know?

In a time when the whole world often seems on fire, it may be the most worthy set of questions for anyone to ask of themselves. It is the essence of the search for meaning amongst a life full of troubles, in interesting times.

The Yellow House isn’t a particularly easy read, because it asks difficult questions, faces events and exposes some shameful moments many people would rather not think about, while pondering the American experiment and the work left to be done. Some people will dislike it exactly for this reason. But if you're looking for a big think book, and you're ready to consider some new ideas, this could be a good match. Recommended.
Profile Image for Wyndy.
177 reviews69 followers
January 16, 2020
Winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, this is Sarah Monique (“Mo”) Broom’s poignant account of her large New Orleanian family and the house that contained and defined all fourteen of them. Sarah’s mother Ivory Mae and her brother Carl were the stars of this book for me. Ivory Mae was stepmother to three children and physically bore nine. Sarah was her last child. Ivory used the payout from her first husband’s military life insurance policy in 1961 to purchase a home, nicknamed ’The Yellow House,’ in newly developed, up and coming New Orleans East at the age of 19. These 376 pages contain not just a history of Ivory Mae and then her first husband Edward Webb and her second husband Simon Broom and all the occupants of The Yellow House, but a quick history of New Orleans, Louisiana from about 40 or so years pre-Hurricane Katrina to present day. The book is also a journal of the childhood and diverse career of Sarah Broom herself and a reflection on the powerful pull of family and home, the “roots” that claim us:

“We had all inherited from our mother the tendency, the NEED even, to make the things that belonged to us presentable, but even Carl could not put the house back together again. Instead, he stood watch, a sentinel, letting the space transform and be the place it always was. He was the keeper of memory . . .”

I’m a bit surprised this won the National Book Award, but I don’t read many memoirs and am not very comfortable judging this genre. ‘The Yellow House’ was the post-1980 selection for January for the group ‘On The Southern Literary Trail’ and is a worthy and timely read for our group. But personally, I feel like I just waded for too many days through almost 400 pages of fairly detached lament. A memoir should put me in a skin I’ve never lived and leave me feeling like I did. This one did not. But my hat is off to Broom for her heartfelt “biography” of her mother. Ivory Mae Soule Webb Broom, despite poverty and limited opportunity and endless childbirth, bought her own home, worked multiple jobs, made couture clothing and home accessories, threw fun parties, and sacrificed much to keep all twelve children alive, despite the statistical odds. Ivory Mae and her mother Amelia “Lolo” were beautiful, talented, empowering women that belong to a generation we are about to lose - the generation born in the 30’s and 40’s with no silver spoon and no silver lining, the last generation of avid talkers and storytellers. 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,850 reviews34.9k followers
September 4, 2019
Ivory Mae bought her first and only house in New Orleans - NOLA- east in 1961.
She had twelve children:
Simon Jr., Deborah, Valerie, Eddie, Michael, Darryl, Carl, Karen, Troy, Byron, Lynette, and Sarah.
We get to know all these siblings plus many other characters.

Sarah... the baby of this family - whose birth father died six months after she was born - (author Sarah M. Broom) - a native New Orleanian - who received her Masters of Journalism at UC Berkeley in 2004- tells this story/memoir:
....heartfelt family intimacy - poverty- history ( going back 100 years) - education - employment
racism - displacement of the black community-classism- crime - and *home-is-where-the-heart-is*.....even if the house was destroyed/vanished from the map - after Hurricane Katrina.

History in New Orleans is rich, colorful, and highly textured.
My own visit was years ago - before Hurricane Katrina..when I was young-single - dancing in the streets in The French Quarters.

Sarah’s longing to return to her roots -
was pulling her back.
Haha....being in Berkeley too long ( my roots)... might have contributed to her New Orléans longing.

I enjoyed reading about Sarah’s family and New Orleans - but felt some of the details might have been edited.
At the same time this is an incredible ambitious important book...
deeply passionate...
and powerful...
from an exceptional woman who loves her family - her birth home - and all the memories that came with it.

Terrific tribute to New Orleans... and a pleasure to get to know Sarah M. Bloom

Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,211 reviews453 followers
January 8, 2020
The Yellow House is:

The story of a house and it's eventual demise.
The story of the family that lived in that house.
The story of Hurricane Katrina.
The story of New Orleans. What it is and what it isn't.
The story of Sarah Monique Broom, youngest of the 12 children raised in that house, and her journey to understand all the above mentioned facets, and her need to escape, and the pull to go home.

This was an incredible feat of writing and research and soul-searching, culminating in winning the National Book Award for non-fiction for 2019. I haven't read the other books nominated, but this was certainly deserving.
Profile Image for Obsidian.
2,677 reviews919 followers
July 15, 2019
Please note that I received this book via NetGalley. This did not affect my rating or review.

Well cutting to the chase I really didn't like this one. I was all ready to fall in love with a nonfiction story where the author talks about her family living in New Orleans East. A place that I have never heard about. Instead the big jumps around a lot and Broom at times talks about her family as if they were these people she doesn't know. I kept getting confused everytime she talked about Simon Broom (her father) in a what I would call historical tone. Due to this I really didn't get any type of emotion from her while reading this. The book turns into something more when she recounts Katrina and how scared she was for her brothers and mother. But by then I felt myself just going through the motions to finish this one up. I ended up bouncing to other books to finish in order to just put this one aside. I started it weeks ago and just could not get into this. The ending was perplexing and read as unfinished, at least to me. There is a reason why I tend to not review memoirs. I always feel badly if I don't like the book the author puts out since then in a way that makes it seem like I dislike them. I think the only memoirs besides this one this year that I read was just Tan France's book. And reading this one reminds me why I stay away from memoirs especially when they read like this.

"The Yellow House" tells the story of Sarah Broom's family growing up in a yellow house in New Orleans East. Through a long winding road we get into Sarah's mother's family and father's family and how they ended up meeting and having I think children together. Sarah ends up being the 13th child born to her mother and father and does not get to know him since he died several months after she was born. From there we have Sarah talking about relatives, friends, her brothers, sister, her mother, etc. She sometimes will call them brother, sister, or mother or other times talk about them in a totally removed voice. Sarah tries to leave New Orleans East behind, but she feels it pull her when she goes off to places like New York. When Katrina hits she finds herself wanting to be back in the city, but she has moved on from New Orleans East to the French Quarter properly where her family does not feel as if they fit in.

The writing I thought was too technical and dry. I was glad that Broom included pictures to break up the book. At times I don't know what Broom was going for. Was she trying to write a history book or was she trying to provide commentary on New Orleans East. And sometimes she would get into crime and statics and how bad New Orleans (French Quarter) had gotten. She would jump around from paragraph to paragraph. When she gets into when she leaves the country for Burundi (I think, sorry reading these ARCS is a pain since I have a hard time trying to search later) the book turns into something else and I just scratched my head.

The flow was awful from beginning to end. I think if the book was more focused it would have resonated more. At times she seems to want to upbraid her father for not finishing the Yellow House so that the family could live there and not be ashamed of it. Other times she is angry that the family is ashamed of the house and can't have close friendships with others because of it. I just maybe went seriously and was baffled. My parents house was not a showcase and my dad was constantly knocking down a wall and we were dealing with construction here and there. I remember living with plastic hanging from the wall between the living room and entryway for about 5 years. My friends came over all of the time. So did my brothers and relatives. I guess our family just didn't care? I don't know. I think that I get the importance of owning your own home and having something that is yours and how important that is to African Americans especially when the housing market fell out and everyone owed money on a home they could no longer afford. I just wish that had been more of the story.

The setting of New Orleans East surprised me. I had no idea such a place existed. I wanted to read more of the history of that place. Too bad most of the history books I saw were just about the French Quarter.

The ending was puzzling. I don't know what Broom was going for there at all.
Profile Image for Regina Lemoine.
366 reviews14 followers
December 6, 2019
2.5 stars.

The devil, as they say, is in the details and so many of the small details in Broom's book are factually inaccurate that it drove this New Orleans native to distraction, repeatedly pulling me out of the narrative. I preface my remarks by saying that the house in which I spent the first 8 years of my life was less than a mile from Broom's family home on Wilson Avenue. My father's youngest brother lived for a time in the trailer park on Wilson and his daughter knew Broom's family. I lived in New Orleans East until I was 23, when I moved to the the Westbank of Jefferson Parish.

Broom's mother is just slightly younger than my father. I am just about 20 years older than Broom. Her family is black and mine is white. My family was working class, but of the skilled trade variety (my grandfather was a welder, great-uncles were carpenters, plumbers, and electricians) whereas Broom's family struggled more financially, often taking steady, but menial jobs. I say all of that only to say that I was excited to read this book. When I was a child growing up in New Orleans East in the 1960s and 70s, white families did not socialize with black families. I wanted to read what it was like for a black family in the same geographic space that my idyllic white childhood occupied. While the overall area of N.O. East was racially mixed in the 60s, individual streets were not. The elementary school that Broom's older siblings attended would have been the same one I would have gone to if I had gone to public school. That turned into a screed, but I say all of that to lend context to the criticisms I have.

I was quite enjoying Broom's account of how her family came to live in N.O. East when I hit my first snag. There was a bowling alley on Chef Menteur Highway, Orbit Lanes. It was very mid-century and had a space-age kitschy theme. In the book, it is called "Arbor" Lanes. Now, in Broom's defense, the bowling alley was long past its heyday before she was born. I chalked it up to her mishearing her family talk about the place. It wasn't until I got to the acknowledgements at the end when I figured out what actually probably happened. Broom hired a Tulane undergrad to transcribe hours and hours of her family's taped recollections. Did Broom not proofread these transcriptions?

I know that seems petty, but as the book went on, more of these tiny errors kept popping up. After Katrina, Broom moves back to New Orleans and lives "in Hollygrove where Lil Wayne comes from." Except that she doesn't. She lives on Cambronne and can see Oak Street from her porch. This is the Leonidas neighborhood, or just "Carrollton." Broom claims to have frequently taken a certain route from New Orleans East to the French Quarter to drive her brother to his restaurant job. She takes "Gentilly Avenue" to Esplanade. Anyone who has driven that route should know that it's Gentilly Blvd. Technically, Gentilly does not intersect Esplanade, but I'll let that slide because the whole Gentilly-Bayou Road-Esplanade Avenue area is just outright confusing.

The final straw for me occurs toward the end of the book. A cousin of Broom's is shot and killed outside Susan Spicer's restaurant, Mondo, on Harrison Avenue. Broom writes that the event takes place at "Mondo's restaurant in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans East." Lakeview is in the extreme northwest of the city. It is geographically, racially, economically, and socially--excepting Uptown-- about as far from New Orleans East as you can get. The first thing that popped into my head when I read that was that I could almost hear the collective gasp of Lakeview residents as they imagined their property values plummeting. The reason the shooting at Mondo was big news in the city is because it happened in Lakeview, which probably boasts the city's lowest crime rates.

Last one. Broom writes about her mother: "The Lafon Nursing Home . . . hired her as a nurse's aide, but she would study to become a practical nurse like her mother." Straightforward enough, right? Broom's mother eventually became a practical nurse, right? No. Later in the book, the reader learns that when her mother retired she was still a nurse's aide.

Having said all of that, I still enjoyed a lot of the book. It is most engaging when Broom writes about her family up to and including Hurricane Katrina. After that, when Broom focuses more on herself, the book becomes considerably less interesting. I think this may be partly due to the fact that Broom always keeps the reader at a distance from herself. I gained no real insight into any of her motivations or, in most cases, what she felt about much of what happened to her family. It's hard to describe except to say that, for a memoir, it is often impersonal.

There is one passage, however, that I must share because it is simply brilliant and shows great insight into the value that New Orleanians place on home. For us, place is people and people are place; the two can't be separated. When I read this I nearly gasped. This is exactly what I felt, standing in front of my grandparents' home in New Orleans East after Katrina and realizing that it was gone, ruined. It would eventually be torn down. Someone else lives on the plot of land now, but "home" is truly and permanently gone.

"The house contained all of my frustrations and many of my aspirations, the hopes that it would one day shine again like it did in the world before me. The house's disappearance from the landscape was not different from my father's absence. His was a sudden erasure for my mother and siblings, a prolonged and present absence for me, an intriguing story with an ever-expanding middle that never drew to a close. The house held my father inside of it, preserved; it bore his traces. As long as the house stood, containing these remnants, my father was not yet gone. And then, suddenly, he was."

If there had been more of this kind of writing, I could perhaps have more easily overlooked the errors and inconsistencies in the text. This is the book I was hoping to read but, in the end, didn't quite get.
Profile Image for emma.
1,785 reviews43k followers
Want to read
February 15, 2021
someday i will track the books that look good using the want to read button and then get to them in a timely manner instead of randomly when i remember they exist 16 months later. but today is not that day
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,277 reviews119 followers
December 13, 2019
National Book Award for Nonfiction 2019. Who are we? How did we become the person we are? Broom’s powerful memoir explores the many influences that formed her identity. Born in 1979, she was the youngest child of her mother Ivory Mae’s twelve children. Her father, Simon Broom, died when she was just 6 months old. This was the second husband that Ivory Mae buried and she vowed to never marry again. She focused all of her attention on raising and providing for her children in the house that she bought for herself with the insurance money from the death of her first husband.

This is also a story about New Orleans East where the yellow house was located. Originally promoted as a place for the expansion of the city of New Orleans, the scheme was to drain the wetlands and realize huge profits. Although it started out as a mixed-race neighborhood; the white residents soon moved out, leaving poor, black homeowners in their place. Simon Broom worked for NASA as a maintenance worker and was good at starting home improvement projects—but not finishing them. Once he passed away, Ivory Mae had no money for home maintenance or repairs. The home had a half-finished feel. Hence, none of her children were encouraged to bring home friends. Ivory Mae said that “they wouldn’t feel comfortable”.

What Ivory Mae was excellent at was keeping the house clean, making clothes for her children and taking them to church regularly—twice on Sunday. She made ends meet by working a LOT. Her efforts got Sarah into a better school, when the public school was not meeting her needs. None of this was easy as a single mother of 12 children.

New Orleans East was largely neglected by the city. Their focus was on the French Quarter and the tourism that the city could attract. The atrocious disregard for the residents of this neighborhood was on full display when the Category 5 Hurricane Katrina hit in August of 2005. (Broom was living in Harlem at the time.) It took 7 days for Broom’s brother to be rescued from the roof of the yellow house. Other relatives were transported to various locations—some in Texas. The house was demolished without notifying the owner, and it took years to obtain financial compensation from the city. So—Broom’s story also exposes the city’s ineptitude in basic governance.

Even though Broom has traveled to several countries and lived in other cities, her identity is tied to the city of New Orleans. Highly recommend this well-written memoir.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,402 reviews8,128 followers
July 31, 2021
I appreciated the themes in this memoir – displacement and gentrification, racism and colorism, and class and poverty. Sarah Broom also writes about the bonding ties of family and place. I appreciated the depth of thought she put into this book, like in the passages where she wrote about the importance of critiquing where one comes from and how that critique does not negative love or respect for one’s hometown.

At the same time, I struggled a lot to get into the voice of this book. I felt like I observed everything from a cool distance. The characters and relationships and self-insight all felt too removed, too “told” and not “shown.” Overall, I felt okay about The Yellow House.
82 reviews
December 23, 2019
This book confounds me. I turned page after page waiting to feel engaged, to care about a sprawling, massive family that experienced “the Water” (Hurricane Katrina) but somehow leaves the reader without any sense of emotion, connection or compassion. Having read Dave Egger’s Zeitoun, this reader deeply felt the tragedy of the hurricane and its relentless aftereffects. Somehow, this memoir rambles on and on, with anecdotes that feel disorganized and random. The accolades the book received seem superficial and unjustified. Is this a story of race or politics or family or the meaning of what makes a home a home? The book is unfocused and chaotic, the author’s story frankly unremarkable. It was hard to get past the simple curiosity of why a woman would continue to have children, year after year, in this day and age, adding up to 12- crammed in the Yellow House, in East New Orleans, trying to carve out a life. There is no mention of how a nurse’s aide fed 12 children, or why poverty is never linked to the outcome after the storm. I plodded on, disappointed as I waited for a hook that never appeared. I wished for more- more depth, more lyrical prose, more closure.
Profile Image for Lorna.
632 reviews338 followers
January 10, 2020
The Yellow House by Sarah Broom was a beautiful memoir that was not only the story of this very special family but a of a very special house, a home that loomed so large and an integral part of their history in New Orleans, Louisiana. The author, Sarah M. Broom, dedicates her book to three special women, Amelia "Lolo," Auntie Elaine and Ivory Mae; her maternal grandmother, her aunt and her mother, all strong women and such important influences in her life.

This is a stunning debut memoir by Sarah M. Broom that wraps you up in the lives of these people. Her mother, Ivory Mae, a young widow with several babies, invests her life savings into a home in New Orleans East. Later Ivory Mae meets and marries the love of her life, Simon Broom. This is the story of this burgeoning family soon to be home to twelve children. It was said that the home almost became the thirteenth child of Ivory Mae as she struggled to keep the home livable. When Hurricane Katrina struck, this house along with so many others, was lost. This is not only the story of how this family dealt with this tragedy, but the devastation that was endured by so many in New Orleans during this catastrophic and humbling disaster.

"And then you see the lives of the children and they become the living people of the house, the house lives in them. They become the house instead of the house becoming them. When I look at you all, I don't really see the house, but I see what happened from the house. And so in that way, the house can't die."

"There are years that ask questions and years than answer."

-- Zora Neale Hurston
Profile Image for Nancy Oakes.
1,914 reviews705 followers
August 19, 2019

I LOVE THIS BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Hence a big fat five stars, and were there more I would give those as well. It is beyond excellent, poignant, funny at times but always very down to earth and real; it is a book that deserves any and all awards that may come its way in the future. The Yellow House is genuinely that good.

just read the blog post.

Profile Image for Sharon Orlopp.
Author 1 book276 followers
December 9, 2022
Sarah Broom's memoir about growing up in New Orleans East hooked me with the drawn map of New Orleans at the beginning of the book. Development of New Orleans East began in 1959. In 1960, New Orleans was the 16th largest city in the US. The East development expected 300,000 residents but only ended up with about 8,000 residents.

In 1961, at age 19, Broom's mother was a pregnant widow with two young children. She purchased the Yellow House for $3,200 with the proceeds from her husband's life insurance. She later remarried and had nine more children. Broom was the youngest of 12 children.

Broom's father passed away when Broom was six months old. At age 39, her mother was a widow for a second time---with twelve mouths to feed. Her mother never remarried and focused intently on keeping her family fed and intact.

In 1965, Hurricane Betsy decimated New Orleans. The Yellow House had water on three sides: Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River, and the Industrial/Intercoastal Canal. Broom's father worked at NASA and was at work making sand bags. There were not recommendations to evacuate New Orleans and most people had 20 minutes before the water was waist high on adults. Many of the levees were breached. Broom's mother was at home with her children; five of them were 8 years old or younger.

Hurricane Betsy flooded 160,000 homes in New Orleans. President LBJ visited the next day and committed to repairing the levees and strengthening flood protection systems which failed 40 years later when Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

By the late 70's, New Orleans East had changed from a predominantly white neighborhood to primarily a black neighborhood. NASA scaled back operations and in 1980, the oil bust occurred.

Then Katrina hit in August 2005. Broom describes the plight of all her family members between 2005 and 2008. Out of 24 extended family members, only two remained in New Orleans.

Broom's journey reflects on how we describe and feel about home or place. James Baldwin is her favorite author and her writing reflects his influence. Phrases that stood out for me include:

* Unrealized dreams can pummel you if you're not careful
* Shame is slow creeping at first, a violent implosion later
* By avoiding showing people where we lived, we unmoored ourselves
* Remembering is a hard chair to sit still in
* Travel the world to know how to speak about things
* Justice is just about humanity

This story struck a chord with me because my husband was born and raised in New Orleans. When Hurricane Betsy struck, his father had to cut a hole in the attic with a hatchet and place his family of five on the rooftop. When Hurricane Katrina occurred, one relative in New Orleans East was not heard from for nine days. My husband has a profound sense of home and place and it is New Orleans and Louisiana.

My constructive critique of the book is that the book could be shorter by removing some of the details that aren't critical to the overall story and flow.

Profile Image for Jerrie.
978 reviews124 followers
November 24, 2019
This book was about many things-a memoir, a family history, a story of Hurricane Katrina, and a story of New Orleans. The many strengths of the book were also its weaknesses. It was expansive, but that made it hard to keep track of all the people and places. The writing was elegant, but also a bit too restrained. It was well-researched, but also veered into too much detail that detracted from the central narrative. This was evidently written with deep love for her family and birth city, and that is a redeeming factor of the book. 3.5⭐️
Profile Image for Stacey A.  Prose and Palate.
356 reviews114 followers
February 17, 2020
Say the words “New Orleans” to people and images of Mardi Gras, beignets, jazz, voodoo, second lines, eclectic art and Saints football immediately spring to mind. It is a city that is visited by millions of tourists a year and has been the musical and literary muse for countless artists and writers. Past the hustle and bustle of Jackson Square and the Cathedral in the famous French Quarter, heading out East on I-10, is a part of New Orleans that doesn’t make the travel brochures and tour bus stops. There are no great literary works to browse on the shelves in bookstores telling the stories about the area and the people that call New Orleans East home. Until now.

Part history lesson, part memoir, 100 percent unforgettable, The Yellow House is a look at the lives of Sarah Broom’s family members as well as a powerful call out of a city, state and government plagued with corruption and systemic racism. It is a story about home, identity, and family - filled with writing that alternates from a sharp, seasoned reporter to that of a woman running – seeking answers from the offices of Oprah Magazine in New York City to the mountains of Burundi after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina - attempting to place “what happened in New Orleans in a more global context to understand how loss, danger, and forced migration play out in other parts of the world.” Throughout her book, Broom has expertly managed to walk the line between investigative journalist and displaced daughter and what she has given us within the pages of her story fills a void in Southern literature that has been sorely lacking in contemporary voice. •

Huge thank you to Octavia Books who had early stock of this mighty work and were kind enough to ship it out to me last week. I am still attempting to gather my thoughts to write an adequate, comprehensive review (there is so much more to unpack and cover - I went through two pads of book tabs). The Yellow House is out today and I wanted to be sure that it was on your radar. All the stars.
Profile Image for Lynn.
244 reviews41 followers
August 21, 2019
This memoir is about a family, a city (New Orleans) and a storm (Katrina). A closer look reveals an additional story about race, class, and identity. Closer still exposes how the US consistently fails and marginalizes poor black families. Katrina is simply one large link in a rusty, poorly maintained, unwieldy chain that is Black America. This is a phenomenal and artfully written book. The author deftly tells her family’s story which is deeply embedded in New Orleans, their neighborhood, and “The Yellow House” which housed 12 children and their mother Ivory Mae.
Profile Image for Dan.
438 reviews4 followers
December 9, 2022
Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House should stand as an American classic. Refracted through the Yellow House in which she grew up, Broom intertwines her migrations, her family’s stories and their migrations, New Orleans’ appalling economic and political inequities, and the predictable tragedies and aftermaths of the Water — Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina. A memoir and so much more than a memoir, deservedly a winner of the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction.
Profile Image for Lisa Taddeo.
Author 13 books2,655 followers
July 21, 2019
Masterful. Large-scale and granular at once. Quietly stunning prose. Wow.
Profile Image for Judith E.
522 reviews186 followers
September 17, 2020
A pre and post Hurricane Katrina story told through the transformation of Sarah Broom’s yellow house in which she and her 11 siblings were raised in New Orleans East. Her memoir embarks on an investigation to pin down who she is and from where she came. It is also a statement about New Orleans, it’s racial segregation and it’s racial inequality.

Her fluid writing not only made me angry and sad, but also deeply inspired by her mother’s steadfastness in raising 12 children in a loving, healthy environment in the midst of all of New Orleans’ racial injustices. There is a lot to learn in this beautiful memoir.

Sarah’s mission was to find herself but she is her mother’s daughter. Strong, smart, and driven just like Ivory Mae Broom.
Profile Image for Stelleri.
34 reviews8 followers
January 26, 2020
What a slog. I'm not sure why this won an award. The prose is flat and although memoir is my favorite genre at the moment, I didn't get much insight or engagement here.
Profile Image for Mark.
1,092 reviews135 followers
February 20, 2020
This isn't the first time I've been baffled by an award jury's choice, but never have I been more flummoxed than by the National Book Award's nonfiction prize to this memoir.

The only reason I didn't give it one star is that there are in fact a few stretches of really good writing in Sarah Broom's book, and a few memorable phrases. Other than that, it is just one, big sprawling mess that had me constantly asking, "Who cares??"

The eponymous house in Broom's book is the home where she grew up in East New Orleans, a largely black, poor section of the city that rarely gets any attention, compared to the tiny, tourist-oriented French Quarter. That could have made for a really excellent exploration of prejudice, neglect, inequality, housing policies and a dozen other pressing issues, but instead what we get is a vastly overwritten recitation of all the relatives Broom has, cryptic descriptions of what they do in life, pretentious attempts to wax philosophical about the meaning of home, and strange moments where key parts of her life (a relationship that falls apart, running a major nonprofit) are barely sketched out, while at the same time we get detailed descriptions of everything from the fabric her mother uses to sew her shower curtain to the trouble she has with a riding lawnmower.

Just one example of the frustrations filling this book. New Orleans had a program to settle up with people whose homes had been lost in Hurricane Katrina, called The Road Home, and the author's mother enters into this labyrinthine bureaucracy to try to get compensation for The Yellow House. When, near the end of the book, she finally gets a settlement after years of paperwork, do we find out how much she received? Nope. Not relevant, apparently.

To be honest, this is somewhat of a cheat review, because I was so put off by Broom's amateurish writing and slipshod journalism at the beginning of the book that I cut to the Katrina section after suffering through a couple initial chapters. I read from there to the end, and even though, as I said, it had its moments, in general I have read much better family memoirs and much better Katrina narratives, and this bloviated mishmash of the two did not bring clarity or revelation to either topic.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,056 reviews682 followers
October 14, 2021
The title of this book refers to a house in East New Orleans that the author’s mother purchased in 1961 and in which the author and her eleven siblings grew up. She uses this house as a centering focus in this personal memoir in which the author shares her family's history including generations before she was born. In many ways her family—the house too as a symbol—are representative of the poor working class in New Orleans that are often glossed over in the retelling of the consequences of Hurricane Katrina.
... much of what is great and praised about the city comes at the expense of its native black people, who are, more often than not, underemployed, underpaid, sometimes suffocated by the mythology that hides the city’s dysfunction and hopelessness.
This is a story of New Orleans that is not included in the tourist brochures. In some ways the fate of the yellow house is symbolic of the city. The house was heavily used and in chronic disrepair to such a point that the family was ashamed of it and wouldn’t let acquaintances visit them there. Likewise much about the city—levees in particular— were in need of repair and consequently succumbed to Katrina.

The reader of this book is a quarter way through before reaching the point when the author is born. Thus the long historical roots of this family are well established by the time that the author enters the story, the last of twelve siblings. The author was six months old when her father died unexpectedly. From that beginning the author tells of her hard scrabble life competing with eleven older brothers and sisters.

Halfway through the book Hurricane Katrina finally enters the story. At the time of Katrina the author was living and working in New York City receiving sparse and random news about the fates of her family. Most of the family evacuated before the storm, and the one member who remained spent several days stranded on the roof of the yellow house.

The author moved back to New Orleans seven years after Hurricane Katrina with a book contract that funded her living in the French Quarter for a year collecting information and data for use in writing this book. The final portion of this book is an account of that year in New Orleans, a year filled with reflection and conjuring of memories.

The City inspectors declared the Yellow House to be unfit for human habitation as were thousands of other homes in East New Orleans. By the end of the book the centering image for the narrative has been torn down and the family mostly scattered throughout the country. Thus the book ends with a touch of melancholia.
The following are some items of interest from the book that caught my attention.

The following excerpt about New Orleans describes a unique characteristic of its people, and it provides a suggestion of the trauma caused by their displacement by Katrina.
Before the storm, New Orleans had the highest proportion of native-born residents of an American city—seventy-seven percent in 2000, which meant that only a small fraction of New Orleanians ever left for elsewhere. This was why the mass displacement meant so much.
This book contains the first person narrative of the author describing her own experience of “speaking in tongues.”
Tongues was interiority writ large. You had to do it without shame, with no self-consciousness whatsoever. The only control was in letting go. Then you gave yourself over to it, it came bubbling out from you, this foreign language you did not need to study for, that was specific to your tongue, and that you did not know you spoke—until you did.
The author goes on to describe the experience of getting “drunk” in the spirit.
I describe this without irony and without sarcasm for I was one of the drunk. … When Pastor Frank came to you in line, energized and speaking in tongues, laughing and praying, you would almost immediately fall down …
But it didn’t last long. Within the year the author was finished with this stuff.
By the start of 1997, I had sworn off church. They call it backsliding.
These experiences with religion were from her teenage years. This book contains no hint of an interest in religion after her high school years.
Profile Image for Will.
200 reviews
August 31, 2019
Sarah M. Broom's debut combines the highly personal with the journalist investigative eye, creating an engrossing, heartfelt memoir that is, simply put, so much more than the traditional memoir. Broom delivers a loving tribute to family, the history of a place (New Orleans East), the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, a withering view of racism, social injustice, political incompetence and more. Tying everything together, of course, is a house and all that a house and home represents, even long after it has been wiped from the map.
Profile Image for Erin .
1,203 reviews1,107 followers
October 28, 2022
The Yellow House is the story of not just a family but of the house the family lived in. Sarah Broom grew up in a shotgun house in a neglected New Orleans neighborhood. Sarah tells the story but it's not her story, it's her mother Ivory Mae's story. Ivory Mae bought the Yellow House herself at just 19 years old and raised her 8 kids in it.

Given that this story takes place in New Orleans, Katrina and the destruction it left behind is covered. Sarah even worked for the mayor in the aftermath of Katrina. The New Orleans in this book isn't the tourist bureau version. It's the New Orleans that is crime ridden and poverty stricken. There's a reason why 60% of the Black community left New Orleans after Katrina and never returned.

I love reading books about Black families. We don't get to hear enough stories about Black families. Sarah Broom tells the story of her family home and the people who lived in it, in a detached way. I never felt particularly close to any of the people in this book...but then again Sarah herself finds it hard to connect with them as well. Trauma has an effect on families. Some families are made closer by it and others are separated by it. And some times you have to save yourself, even if it's from your own family.

I wouldn't say I enjoyed this book, because it's a sad read. But I did appreciate it.

I'm not sure who to recommend this book to, but I feel like this book finds you when you need to read it. It surely found me.
Profile Image for Daniel Chaikin.
594 reviews57 followers
April 19, 2020

4121 Wilson - Sarah Broom's childhood home, the yellow house

New Orleans East is so far off the regular New Orleans map that I had never heard of it, despite my four years of college in the city. A drained swamp that probably should never have been built, it was a 1960's develop project of a few investors in an expanding city, and was designed to be a nice suburb of New Orleans. It was severely flooded in 1964(?), resulting in never-again promises of flood protection. As economy shrunk in New Orleans, New Orleans East became lower and lower income, and also less white. When Katrina hit, the area had a second massive flooding, this time wiping out neighborhoods and scattering residents across the country, permanently. Impoverished New Orleans East was one of the hardest hit areas in all of New Orleans.

Sarah Broom's family was one of those impoverished families. The youngest of 12 siblings and half siblings, she was raised by a single mother with limited income, and handful of older brothers and sisters in what was probably supposed to be her mother's starting house. Her mother never left, though, and house simply trended toward a dilapidated decline during her childhood. Sarah, herself, would leave home for college in Texas (without any guidance) and later pursue a career as a writer. She was writing for O magazine in New York City when she Katrina hit, and when, later, she got a call that their house was gone, torn-down post-Katrina without proper notice by what appears to have been some kind of runaway wrecking crews. This was what she remembers as the yellow house, on 4121 Wilson, along an edge of New Orleans East.

I was a little surprised by how much this was an extensive family history, largely before Sarah was born. I didn't mind, although I did prefer the sections about her own life. But, first, very noticeable, she is a very eloquent writer, able to set up and lay out a captivating story, able to capture and bring to life each of her bundle of siblings, plus some of her extensive family, even the family she never knew, like her father. Naturally a journalist, she attacks her own life kind of the same way a journalist would, interrogating her family for details, and then doing research to confirm or undermine them. I was really struck by her take of the especially dark days in New Orleans in 1994, when crime was rampant and the NOPD was seriously compromised, the year one NOPD officer was arrested to hiring a hit on a mother of two, because she "anonymously" reported something strange he did. I was in New Orleans that year, and the rampant crime then, the stories of people I knew getting held up at gun point, or of friends of friends getting shot, form a strong part of my impression of the city. She was 14 that year.

A different history of New Orleans comes out of this book, of a family without the accent, outside and somewhat disconnected the main city, neglected by the city, and of a family scattered across the country by the storm. At one point, having returned to New Orleans to work for the mayor after Katrina, Sarah would be the only one of her siblings living in New Orleans. Most of her siblings would not return Louisiana.

This book of course won the National Book Award and so has its on own PR. I can also recommend it highly. A terrific book and terrific alternate look at this city and its storm and aftermath.


19. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
reader: Bahni Turpin
published: 2019
format: 14:18 audible audiobook (376 pages in hardcover)
acquired: March 4
listened: Mar 4 – Apr 12
rating: 4½
locations: New Orleans East (And Denton, TX, New York City, Burundi and a few other places)
about the author American author from New Orleans East, LA, born December 31, 1979

Profile Image for Barbara.
1,636 reviews26 followers
February 22, 2020
The Yellow House is a story of East New Orleans, a forgotten part of the city, missing from maps handed out to tourists, and the story of Broom’s family. East New Orleans was built up after the Second World War, and was the home to many of the African Americans who worked at NASA during the Space Race. Not as scientists, but they did the vital maintenance and daily tasks that kept things running. A memoir told through the story of a house is not just an interesting device. Housing is a basic human need, and increasingly, it is one that more and more people are denied. Even when people (especially African Americans) own homes, the odds that this means permanent security could be stacked against them. When houses aren’t quite legal ( for example, built without the proper permits), owners can’t get insurance. Owners who can’t afford insurance, or live in an uninsurable area (flood plain), are completely out of luck. When disaster strikes, Hurricane Katrina in this case, it can take years to get a settlement, which happened to Broom’s family.

Broom was the youngest of 12 children of Ivory Mae. Broom doesn’t romanticize the house. They had rats, and at time termite infestations. Parts of the house were so gerry-rigged, they were barely hanging on to the structure. Broom’s mother fell victim to unscrupulous contractors and repairs. Despite its problems, the house was the glue that kept some family members from drifting away, and off the streets. This house in East New Orleans was on a street that diminished over time and few houses remained near its end. But there was life on the street and in the area. It gave Broom an identity that set apart her from other New Orleanians.

This is also a story of the destruction caused by poorly planned development of the Mississippi delta and Gulf Coast. New Orleans is a city of multiple disfunction. Broom learns this first hand when she returns to New Orleans to work for the now disgraced mayor, Ray Nagin. I didn’t know that during his time in office, there were many residents who despised him. As Broom made her way around the city, she often had to park her city vehicle at a distance so that people wouldn’t identify her with City Hall. Broom also describes the poor quality of public education. Her mother scrimped together the tuition to send her daughter to parochial schools.

As I heard (via audiobook) Broom’s description of the city as seen by tourists and the tourist industry, I felt I could have been reading about places in the developing world (or as some still persist in saying “the Third World”). Locals stay in the background and are there to clean the hotel rooms, cook and serve meals, and play the music the city is famous for. The tourists drink themselves senseless and party. These residents of New Orleans became “throw aways” when Katrina descended and drove residents to their roofs, and the Superdome, and killed over 1,800. The apathy of response to Katrina may have been outdone by the government’s delayed response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. But as Elie Wiesel reminded us, it’s not about who suffered more. Both New Orleans and Puerto Rico are full of brown people, many of them poor. More concern seemed to center on restoring tourism centers, and many people have little or no hope of being made whole despite the time that has elapsed since these natural disasters.

Broom’s memoir won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2019 as it deserved. Highly recommended.
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