The Ninth Ward, Jewell Parker Rhodes

One of the things I’ve discovered about this project, even just these few weeks in, is that I so desperately need two manageable books a week, everything is fair game – that book my husband picked up on a whim at the used book store, the novel my friend’s cousin recommended, a list given to me by a friend who just became a middle school librarian…now that I’ve started asking, it seems like everyone has a book they love that I have to read, and that alone makes this worthwhile. So many well-loved stories crawling out of the woodwork! It’s literary Christmas!

The Ninth Ward is another recommendation from my mother; she was reviewing it for Audiophile magazine and told me the reader was so wonderful that she wasn’t sure if whether that had influenced her opinion on the story itself. Nevertheless, this book did win the Coretta Scott King award, and it’s about Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophic event that significantly affected the first decade of the new millennium, so I decided to give it a try.

Having never been to New Orleans, I don’t believe I can fully appreciate the treasure that was lost when the levees broke, but as a citizen of the world, I can’t help but be drawn to the destruction that has and can be wreaked by nature. I’m fascinated by stories that illustrate how fragile we are as human beings. This unassuming novel does just that.

I think quiet before the storm means it isn’t really quiet. Maybe it means only now you can hear birds flying, forming a V overhead. Or that the air has sound. That it whistles, low and deep, as a storm approaches. Quiet before a storm maybe means folks are done hammering wood across their windows and placing sand sacks beside their front doors. Or maybe it means there’s loneliness. A weird loneliness that is, yet isn’t, real. (loc 1058-1061)

I felt I was walking the streets of Lanesha’s neighborhood with her, slowly being introduced into a world of subsistence living that rises above desperation and instead champions, at its darkest moment, a tenacious twelve-year-old girl.

I wasn’t sure you were going to be all right. 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. Your testing should’ve come much, much later. But when it came, you shined with love and strength. (loc 1381-1383)

This story was so well-paced, so captivating, it allowed me to get past the fact that I didn’t love the protagonist’s voice. I doubt it would have worked in a longer novel, or with less compelling material, but I was able to gloss over certain stylistic choices that were made with the dialogue. I don’t argue that it may be realistic, even an appropriate choice, but I suspect The Ninth Ward works better as an audio book in that respect – it’s wonderful to listen to a well-rendered dialect – but reading to myself, it feels…stiff. Unnatural.

My feelings partially come from the recent realization that television, movies, and the internet have largely done away with the subtler dialects in this country. The friends I have from Tennessee or Georgia or Boston or Texas may occasionally slip into local slang, but the cadence of language has largely become homogeneous. Consequently, I can believe the older characters, such as Lanesha’s adopted grandmother, might sound this way, I have a harder time believing children do.

That being said, Rhodes does a wonderful job taking a recent historic event and turning it into a carefully plotted and not at all unbelievable adventure. It’s sweet and sad and frightening, a story the reader can easily imagine playing out a hundred different ways. I particularly loved the development of one of the supporting characters – an odd, isolated neighbor boy who, under just the right circumstances, is able to bring to life that singular essence of friendships in childhood.

He lifts his head and wipes his eyes. He looks far-off. For a minute, I think he’s going to be his quiet old self, and pretend to disappear. Then, he says softly, “Fortitude.” “Strength to endure.”

“That’s right. We’re going to show fortitude.”

TaShon and I scoot closer, our arms and legs touching. I put my arms around him; he puts his arms around me. Neither of us moves. I know we are both thinking, murmuring in our minds, over and over again, “Fortitude. Fortitude. Fortitude.” (loc 1819-1823)

To find out more about Jewell Parker Rhodes, check out

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