It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been almost nine years since Hurricane Katrina hit. I can remember the feelings of horror when everyone learned of the devastation on the Gulf Coast, particularly in New Orleans. I recall watching the news reports, donating to food and supply drives, and seeing new people–those who had lost their homes in the storm–move into the apartment complex I was living in at the time. In many ways, Katrina opened everyone’s eyes to the damage that Mother Nature was capable of…and how the best and worst in people could be revealed from such a tragedy. Even now, we wonder when the next big storm will hit and if the lessons learned from Katrina prepared people–especially the powers-that-be–for the worst.
After Katrina, many books, both fiction and nonfiction, were written talking about people who made it through the storm. Until yesterday, I had only read one of those books, Hurricane Song by Paul Volponi. That book showed YA readers what it may have been like for someone who had to take refuge in the Superdome. The language was a bit rough in that book, but I felt it did adequately reflect everything about that situation.
My latest read, though, comes at things from a different perspective. Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick, looks at Katrina from a twelve-year-old boy’s perspective. This book, suitable for upper elementary and middle grade readers, doesn’t have any coarse language, but it paints a very realistic picture of the peak of the storm and it’s tragic aftermath. I think it’s accessible to young readers–many of whom have no memory of this bleak point in American history–without being too graphic. At the same time, Zane and the Hurricane doesn’t sugarcoat anything. It shows readers that this was a time of fear, pain, prejudice, and even hope.
Zane Dupree, a twelve-year-old kid from New Hampshire, is not exactly thrilled about spending a week in New Orleans. He’s never been there, he’s never met the great-grandmother he’ll be staying with, and he doesn’t really know what to expect from his visit. At least he gets to take his dog, Bandy, with him.
At first, things aren’t as bad as he thought they would be. His great-grandmother, Miss Trissy, might be an older lady who walks with two canes, but she sings like an angel, and she’s got a story or a song for everything. But stories and songs won’t prepare anyone for the storm about to hit the city. Hurricane Katrina is on her way, and Zane, Bandy, and Miss Trissy need to get out of New Orleans fast.
It should have been a simple evacuation, but Zane’s frightened dog leads him right back into the city that is soon to be destroyed. As Zane and Bandy hole up in Miss Trissy’s house, the storm hits. Winds scream through the long night, and, as morning dawns, Zane watches as water overtakes much of New Orleans. Their only hope is to make it to the sweltering attic and hope that help will come soon.
Help comes in the form of a canoe, a musician named Tru, and Malvina, a young girl with a joke for even the most somber of occasions. As Zane, Bandy, Tru, and Malvina navigate the waters that have flooded the city, they are confronted with death, destruction, and both the best and worst in humanity. Some people are willing to give aid to others even when they don’t have much themselves. Others either look to exploit the situation or only worry about themselves or saving things as inconsequential as Oriental rugs.
There seems to be no real rescue coming from any source, so it’s up to this foursome to save themselves. Zane and company have to stick together, even when it would be easier to leave someone behind, if they’re to have any hope of making it out with their sanity–and their humanity–in tact.
Zane and the Hurricane is a story that pieces together very real stories from the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina. It addresses the lawlessness that plagued New Orleans, the absence or apathy of law enforcement, lack of medical care, the fear and prejudice against poor African-Americans who were just trying to survive, and the horrible conditions both outside and in the Superdome, also known as the “shelter of last resort.” It also highlights that there were people who behaved like true heroes. People who rescued others from flooding homes, people who gave freely of what little water and food they had, and people who stood up for those who were doing everything possible just to make it one more day in grim circumstances.
This book, I think, shows readers young and old, a small glimpse of what this storm did to New Orleans and other cities impacted by Katrina. Local and federal governments failed their people. Prejudice made a nasty appearance when the largely African-American Ninth Ward was submerged and survivors sought help. No one was prepared for this massive storm, despite warnings that something like this was possible. If anything positive came from Katrina, I think it opened eyes and made this city and others like it really examine how it should respond to disasters, both natural and man-made. (And even though Katrina was a natural disaster, the actions–and inaction–of man, in my opinion, made it so much worse.)
Like I mentioned previously, I think Zane and the Hurricane is a good read for upper elementary and middle grade readers. I plan to add this book to my own school library. It is a very realistic portrayal of a dark time in our recent history, and I think it could lead to some deep conversations about the impact of catastrophic events and how humans respond to them.