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City of Refuge

A new novel offers an impassioned take on life in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.

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Lots of people brag about being good in a crisis: SJ Williams actually is. The widowed carpenter learns this to his sorrow in August of 2005. After the levees break in New Orleans, wiping out his Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, Williams manages to get his sister to safety, and then spends two days ferrying people in a dinghy, rowing with a board and blistered hands.

Craig Donaldson, journalist, turns out to be a little less of a pillar of strength, but manages to get his family out of the city before hurricane Katrina hits.

Both men, though, are faced with the horrible uncertainty of what to do with themselves once the water recedes in Tom Piazza’s visceral new novel City of Refuge.

At its core, the novel attempts to answer a question Craig poses to himself: “ ‘What kind of a person?’ Craig wondered. ‘If you lived here, and lived through this, what kind of a person did it take to come back and get on a ladder and start making repairs?’ ”

Piazza, a journalist and author who’s lived in New Orleans for well over a decade, first wrote about post-Katrina New Orleans in his 2006 nonfiction account of the city’s legacy, “Why New Orleans Matters.”

Published just months after the levees broke, it was an impassioned answer to those who wondered why the US should spend billions rebuilding New Orleans and those who felt the crime and corruption of the city outweighed its cultural gifts to the country.

That passion is in ample evidence in “City of Refuge,” which follows both men and their families in the days before and after the hurricane. Williams, his sister Lucy, and his nephew Wesley try to ride out the storm and eventually end up in Houston after a grueling ordeal in the floods and the Superdome. The Donaldsons wind up in Chicago, watching the catastrophe that befalls their adopted city from a distance.

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