City of Refuge by Tom Piazza

I first heard about the City of Refuge by Tom Piazza from Jen at Devourer of Books and Wendy of Caribousmom. I recently received my copy from Jen at Devourer of Books when she was slated to be on That’s How I Blog! hosted by Nicole at Linus’s Blanket.  Unfortunately, it has taken me a while longer to finish this book than I expected, though the book club discussion for Nicole’s show with Jen was an enlightening experience.  OK, enough of all that . . . let’s get to the review.

“New Orleanians knew how to turn deprivation into an asset; they had the best gallows humor going, they danced at funerals, they insisted on prevailing.  They had heard it all before, and most of the time it turned out to be a false alarm.  The regular challenge made them defiant.”  (Page 28)

Tom Piazza’s own experience of being evacuated from New Orleans must have played a significant role in his writing of this novel.  The horror, the grief, the devastation, the hollowness, and a range of other emotions following the 2005 disaster, known as Hurricane Katrina, rips through readers’ hearts and puts them through the wringer alongside SJ, Craig, and their families.

“A block away water bubbling and churning from a submerged, ruptured gas line.  Below him, amid a cataract of smashed weatherboard, face-down in the water, a man, unmoving; his white T-shirt had ridden up his back almost all the way to his shoulder.  A black dog swam by.  Not twenty feet away, the sole of a sneaker stuck out of the water, held up by an ankle attached to an invisible leg, waving slightly, probably snagged on something below the surface. . .”  (Page 139)

SJ and his family live in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was the hardest hit by the hurricane’s storm surge, while Craig and his family live in a different section of New Orleans.  On the surface, both of these families are different from their skin color to where they live and from their education to their jobs, but what they have in common is a deep connection to the city, its culture, and their homes.  Beyond the moral outrage of New Orleanians against the government, insurance companies, and others, which readers will surely have seen on the news or in the papers and magazines, Piazza’s novel weaves a tale of surprising resilience — a common trait in humanity — a will to survive.

“One day he saw something he had seen every day for a month and a half, a loose hinge on the closet door.  He went downstairs to Aaron’s utility room, rummaged around and found a Phillips head screwdriver and an assortment of screws and simply replaced the screw that was in the hinge with a larger one.  That would hold it until he could really fix the hinge.  

That was how you came back, if you came back.”  (Page 285)

Each of these families has their own personal struggles and dynamics, which Piazza deftly navigates in alternating story lines weaving a tense atmosphere before, during, and after the hurricane.  Piazza’s characters are deep with their own backgrounds, personalities, and demons, and SJ is a prime example.  As a Vietnam War veteran, he’s already had enough to deal with before Hurricane Katrina.  In a way — like so many other veterans — he never made it back from the war completely and has been going through the motions of life.

“Aaron would get him to go out for walks.  Aaron, who had also been in Vietnam, knew a fair amount about the traumatic syndrome that SJ was struggling with, and exercise and talking through things could be important.  Some days they would walk and SJ was silent, some days he would talk for a while, and then get silent.  Often he had violent fantasies that would crumble apart into debilitating grief.  ‘I don’t want to be angry like this A,’ SJ said.  ‘I spent long enough dealing with it.  I never thought I’d have to be back in this.'”  (Page 273)

Piazza’s comparisons of PTSD among Vietnam War veterans and the PTSD of New Orleanians is a valid comparison, and City of Refuge brings with it an emotional tsunami that readers cannot ignore.  One of the best books I’ve read this year, and an excellent selection for book clubs because of the range of social and political issues it illuminates.

About the Author:

Tom Piazza is the author of the post-Katrina classic Why New Orleans Matters, the Faulkner Society Award-winning novel My Cold War, and the short-story collection Blues And Trouble, winner of the James Michener Award for Fiction. He lives in New Orleans.

This book is my 17th book for the 2010 New Authors Challenge.

 FTC Disclosure: Clicking on title and image links will lead you to my Amazon Affiliate page; No purchase necessary, though appreciated.

© 2010, Serena Agusto-Cox of Savvy Verse & Wit. All Rights Reserved. If you’re reading this on a site other than Savvy Verse & Wit or Serena’s Feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. I've wanted to read this one ever since it came out! I forgot about it though so thanks for reminding me that I need to pick it up.

  2. Literary Feline says

    Thank you for this great review, Serena. I guess now I will definitely have to read it. 🙂 It sounds like a powerful and moving book.

  3. Kristen: I hope that she has talked about it to someone because emotionally it is not good to keep those stories inside. If anything, this book sends a message that although others outside of N.O. have not had the same experience, they are good sounding boards for those who need to let it out.

  4. Wow! It sounds like this one would be a really tough but rewarding read. I have a friend in N.O. but she doesn't really talk about anything Katrina related if she can help it.

  5. I finished this one last week and just posted it today on my Six Sentence Saturday…powerful book! Loved your thoughts on this one too Serena!

  6. Heather @ Book Addiction says

    This was one of my favorite books of last year, it provoked such an emotional reaction in me. I'm glad to hear you have similar feelings for it. what an amazing book.

  7. Great review Serena. This sounds like something I wouldn't mind reading – like Anna I couldn't imagine what it would have been like in New Orleans after the storm.

  8. bermudaonion says

    Sounds like a powerful, thought-provoking book. I drive everyone crazy when I read a book like this, because I talk about it constantly.

  9. bookaholic says

    Not my kind of book but your review has piqued my interest…will check this out!

  10. This was a book I've wanted to read for a while. It is excellent. There is a point near the end where I think some of the description could have been reduced to speed up the ending, but it wasn't enough to ruin my feelings about the book.

  11. S. Krishna says

    One of the best books you've read this year – high praise! I'll have to check this one out.

  12. Sounds like this book packs a punch. I can't even imagine what it must've been like in New Orleans after the storm. I'll definitely keep this one in mind.

    Diary of an Eccentric