Twelve-year old Lanesha is special. She sees signs in numbers and rainbows and she can talk to ghosts. Her neighborhood, the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, is full of them—the ghosts of children who died too young, the ghost of her mother in Lanesha’s house. But despite her abilities Lanesha leads a fairly normal life. She fights off bullies and makes friends, she dreams of becoming an engineer, and through it all she’s buoyed by the steady love of her guardian Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who attended her birth. One day, people begin to whisper about Hurricane Katrina, and soon enough the neighborhood becomes a ghost town as people head for the Superdome or drive off in cars. With nowhere to go and no means of getting there, Lanesha boards up the windows and prepares to ride out the storm with Mama Ya-Ya. It’s hardly the first hurricane they’ve faced. Why should this time be any different?
When I started listening to this audiobook, I was so entranced by the story and narration that I thought it would take me days to finish. It took me weeks. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I cared too much for the characters and knew what was coming. As I listened to Lanesha’s valiant attempts at hurricane preparedness, I kept remembering a trip I took to the city 18 months after the storm, when I saw the Ninth Ward razed to nothing but cement porch steps and buildings so warped they looked melted. So about halfway through the book, when Lanesha celebrates right after the storm passes, thinking her family and neighborhood have weathered Katrina, all I wanted to do was step into the book and tell her to get out before the levees break.
Listening to the book in audio form simply increased the suspense, as I couldn’t speedread my way through the action. I had to follow the narrator’s pacing, which was slow as suits the mood and piled so thick with foreshadowing I could predict the major events before they happened. Still, this is a book where the journey matters more than the destination, and what a journey it is. Lanesha’s growth from a girl playing with sparkly pens to a leader fighting for survival was both incredible and believable. My initial fear—that the ghosts would swoop in to save the day—soon disappeared. Their role is much more subtle than that. And I was floored by the strong sense of place: Lanesha’s neighborhood is destroyed soon after we meet it, but in those few chapters we get a real sense of the tight-knit community, and we feel the loss as the houses empty.
Published five years after Hurricane Katrina, Rhodes’ book is a fitting tribute to the people of New Orleans. It captures both bleak reality and the hope of a city’s recovery. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that Lanesha comes through the storm stronger than ever. So even though the book is heavy with loss and not exactly expected holiday reading, in the end it’s about the hope and change—perfect, really, for the upcoming New Year.