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The Reading Life: Susan Larson

Story Circle Book Reviews

For decades I've been a visitor to the Crescent City, New Orleans, but always as exactly that—a visitor. I'd head for the French Quarter, the elegant Garden District, maybe down to the Mississippi to watch the boats. If I encountered a neighborhood, particularly one like the Ninth Ward depicted in What Went Missing and What Got Found, the object would be to move on through as quickly as possible. Don't get involved.


But when I stepped into this same neighborhood and met Achilles, Loutie, Sister Michael Patrick, Sweet Pea and the other characters created by Fatima Shaik, I quickly became part of the community. These folks became my friends. I cared about them and continue to now that the book is closed and on my shelf.


I first met them during ordinary times, just living their own dramas, and then—disaster!

Hurricane Katrina.


These lives changed as the storm changed and horrified the city, the nation and the world. What happened? The final stories look at how Katrina immediately changed each life in drastic and different ways.


This book is author Shaik's recognition of the tenth anniversary of this overwhelming natural disaster. As our memories of Katrina's horrors fade into the decades we should not, and for readers of this book cannot, forget the personal losses that are part of its entire story. Once again, stories are the true record of history.


I'm looking forward to my next New Orleans visit. I'll feel right at home, and I'm hoping I'll run into some of my new friends. 


It's pretty much a given that New York is the most interesting city in the United States. But what would be in second place?


You can make a strong argument that city would be New Orleans, founded by the French, expanded by the Spanish, French again under Napoleon, and then sold to the United States. As such, its residents never spent a day under British rule (Andrew Jackson saw to that), or under finger-wagging, old-line Calvinism.


New Orleans is a city replete with contradictions not easily explained, a Deep South town that was awash in slavery, but where races mixed easily, a sultry Gulf port that shipped goods barged down the Mississippi River from the Canadian border.


The Crescent City is famed for its music (African), its cuisine (Gallic), and its architecture (Hispanic). There is no place remotely like it in the rest of America, particularly in its defining quality: as an endlessly impoverished place that nonetheless doggedly celebrates everyday life.


That's the city portrayed in Shaik's new short story collection.


It is usually summertime in her underbelly city, blast furnace hot, a season devoid of festivals, conventions, and tour buses. This city is populated by poor blacks and Creoles who couldn't afford to leave town even if they wanted to (and after many generations in the bayous, they don't want to). They work blue-collar jobs, when they can find them. Their air-conditioning is open windows, shady trees, or fishing trips. Their entertainment is stoop-sitting, family picnics, and endless conversations.


The characters in these 14 stories are a motley assortment of damaged souls, among them an aged trumpeter, a mute daughter, a polio survivor, a self-styled parson. They may sound like a sad lot, but Shaik treats them tenderly and makes sure they're more than that. Her characters, oddballs in a city replete with them, usually have friends and relatives to tend them. Poor in the usual ways, these residents of the Ninth and Seventh Wards have vibrant social lives that many a lonely Manhattanite might envy.


Shaik's strengths as a writer are in creating everyday dialogue, in painting her characters' lives, in mov­ing her plotlines quietly and slowly along. She brews her characters—their status, their intellect, even their skin color—slowly, like tea steeping in a porcelain pot. A few of her stories have abrupt endings, but this New Orleans native and St. Peter's University professor sure can turn a phrase.


In the story "Life Is for the Living," she reflects how "true integration could be demonstrated by the Creoles showing the unity of all races and human appetites when holding the French bread, Spanish onions, Italian salami, German mustard, Creole toma­toes, and Louisiana hot sauce." It's a line that deftly serves up the city's cuisine, culture, and racial reality.


One of the strongest stories is "Achille's Jass," about a talented horn player whose career fizzled in an instant long ago: "'Can't you shut your trap,' he was famously quoted in the newspaper when he shouted at a patron in The Blue Room. Musicians all over town called to thank him. But none would take him up on the bandstand any­more." The story chronicles a last performance at a friend's second-line funeral.


Another top-notch tale, "Maurice in the City," tracks a New Orleans exile hiding among New York's throngs after being suspected in the killing of his girlfriend. The author captures the dynamics of both cities beautifully, switching between them with ease, sometimes pausing gently to compare. In New York, she reflects, "most streets were numbered, not named, like in New Orleans, for dreams, saints and myths."


The last few stories have plotlines wedded to the calamitous flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina, and this book is being published on its 10th anniversary. By matter-of-factly relaying the unfolding horrors that challenge her characters as the water relentlessly rises, Shaik personalizes and deepens the tragedy in a way that a litany of statistics would not. In com­pelling fiction such as this, there is power, and truth.—Jim Concannon


BYU: Top of the Mind wth Julie Rose

Guest: Fatima Shaik, Native of New Orleans and Author of "What Went Missing and What Got Found" 


It's the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the storm considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. More than 1,800 people died when Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast. The flooding in New Orleans displaced tens of thousands of people. 


A visitor to New Orleans today might consider the city entirely rebuilt: $135 billion has gone into the effort and the population of New Orleans is back to 90 percent of what it was before Katrina. But those figures don't tell the full story.