The Yellow House by Sarah Broom is labeled as a memoir, but that label doesn’t really capture what the book is. Broom tells the story of her family, starting with her grandmother Amelia and then turning to her mother, Ivory Mae. If there is a central character in the book, it’s Ivory Mae. She is the one who buys the Yellow House, and she is a constant in her children’s lives even when they are grown.
Ivory Mae buys the Yellow House in New Orleans East, a reclaimed swamp that has perpetual problems with subsidence and drainage and which is generally ignored by the city government. Broom, the youngest of twelve children, grows up in this house, and while it provides a (relatively) safe haven for the family, including Broom’s grown siblings who occasionally return home, it begins to fall apart. Ivory Mae, by this time a widow twice over, has neither the time nor the money to do substantial repairs, and the house is finally destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Once the house is destroyed, the family scatters, some to California, some to Texas, some to other parts of New Orleans. The place they all came home to is gone.
There are a million side-stories and sub-plots in this book, about Broom’s siblings and other family members and Broom herself, which is part of what makes this book hard to pin down or summarize. All the stories come back to the question of, what is it like to be from this place, New Orleans East, that is so different from the New Orleans tourists see, and the myth of New Orleans that city leaders promote? How does being from this place shape a person’s life?
I could not put this down. The book wasn’t what I expected–I had expected a more straightforward memoir. Instead Broom does her own thing, and it works, even when it seems like it shouldn’t. You’re introduced to dozens of people with complicated family relationships, there is no real narrative arc, and sometimes there are big jumps in time and threads left hanging. But rather than a comprehensive history of a person or place, Broom creates a feeling of being in this place and in this family. She also just has a knack for telling all the small stories of her family’s everyday life. The other surprise for me is that, while Broom doesn’t shy away from the poverty of her family or of New Orleans East, or from the racism that affected her family and this neighborhood, the book isn’t grim or depressing. There are some sad moments for sure, but on the whole, it’s full of life and a persistent hope for something better.