Review: The Yellow House
Updated: Sep 12, 2021
The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom (2019)
I finished this book about two weeks ago, but have been putting off writing about it because... I'm not sure. I REALLY liked this book, but I guess I've had a hard time figuring out how to describe it. Sometimes books I only sort of liked are easier to pick apart. With the great ones I don't know where to begin! But here I go, trying...
The Yellow House is a memoir of not only the author, but of a home - that home being not just the physical house that Broom grew up in, but the city - New Orleans - and the section of that city - New Orleans East - and the hurricane that changed everything - Katrina - and the family that was scattered as a result. It sounds like a broad, sweeping tale, to describe it that way. And it is, to an extent, as it recounts the lives of Broom's great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother (and their husbands, to a lesser extent), as well as her aunts, uncles, and 11 siblings... all while detailing the history of the mostly-Black suburb of New Orleans East, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The book touches on the systemic racism that led to the creation of that neighborhood, the poverty that persists there to this day, and the strength of the matriarchal family.
But to read it is to delve into specifics. How her mother grew up wishing for a home she could call her own. How that home, the yellow house, became a point of pride for she and her children, even as it crumbled down around them into disrepair. And the ways in which, once that home was gone, her family continued to protect and care for the land where it once stood. I found it most interesting when the book focused on her family members (past and present) and their journeys up to and including the hurricane. After this, Broom focuses more on her own personal journey. I wasn't sure why I found this part less captivating until I saw a review that noted:
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.
That's what it is. It's a bit impersonal in the sense that she does not reveal very much of herself, even though she does a wonderful job of doing so for her family members and her home.
The only other thing that I had a hard time with was keeping all of the characters straight. Given that she covers multiple generations, and that she has 11 siblings (!!), I found it difficult to follow who was who, at times... especially because many of the people have one name but go by a nickname, so you're trying to track even more names at once. I think she could have used some editorial help in making that more clear, even if it was just to include a family tree at the front of the book.
My enjoyment of this book was greatly enhanced by the fact that a few weeks ago I finished The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. I felt that knowing the full history of systemic, governmental-mandated racial segregation was very helpful in having some background information about the segregation and poverty in The Yellow House. You can find my review for The Color of Law here, and I'd definitely recommend reading it first, before The Yellow House.
2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, from the National Book Foundation
2019 John Leonard Award for Best First Book, from the National Book Critics Circle Awards
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