D. St. Germain's Reviews > The Yellow House

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
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it was amazing
bookshelves: memoir, new-orleans

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.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
August 24, 2019 – Shelved
August 24, 2019 – Shelved as: memoir
August 24, 2019 – Shelved as: new-orleans

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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Libby D., this one is on my list to read in January.


D.  St. Germain Libby wrote: "D., this one is on my list to read in January."
Love to hear what you think!


message 3: by Gerhard (new) - added it

Gerhard Thanks for the heads up. I hadn't heard about this until I saw your comments, but defn want to read it now. Yes, the awards are inevitably flawed, but GR still serves an invaluable function of bringing notable books to the attention of a wider audience.


message 4: by Katy (new)

Katy Kennedy Love how you broke down the implications of this book for the wider context of “the memoir.” Really thoughtful and inspirational review.


message 5: by Barry (new) - added it

Barry Medlin On my reading list now! Thanks for the info and your insight.


message 6: by Tania (new) - added it

Tania Brilliant, brilliant review. Can't wait to read this one.


Marilyn I am in the midst of this book. I am fascinated by it. Thank you for your in depth review.


message 8: by Jess (new)

Jess Fantastic review! Thank you so much for posting it.


Libby D., your review means much more to me now that I've read Broom's book. I loved it but had trouble bringing the reasons why to the forefront and getting them down in writing. Just finished the book and your review makes my heart feel large in appreciation for just the things you mention, esp. how can we understand ourselves without understanding our family.


message 10: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D.  St. Germain Thank you Libby for your followup :) It is a hard book to write about, because there is so much ground covered in it. I also really like your review, which is more substantive in its breadth than mine!


message 11: by Anne (new) - rated it 4 stars

Anne Thank you for your thoughtful, insightful, educational review. I’m about to start this book with our book group. Your review will help me understand the book.


message 12: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D.  St. Germain Thank you so much, Anne. Would love to hear what you think of it.


message 13: by Anne (new) - rated it 4 stars

Anne Book group discussion is Feb 20, so I'll have it finished by then. Stay tuned.


message 14: by Susan (new) - added it

Susan Your review honors the book, I loved reading both.


message 15: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D.  St. Germain Thank you Susan :)


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