Sarah M. Broom’s book debut “The Yellow House” won the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was received with great acclaim. Written in the style of a memoir, Broome’s book charts the complex histories of her own family as well as that of her hometown, New Orleans. The family’s shotgun house located on 4121 Wilson Avenue in the once thriving, but soon neglected eastern part of the city is where these two histories merge: “The Yellow House was witness to our lives”, writes Broom.
Her mother, Ivory Mae, bought the house in 1961 shortly after the death of her husband; and within its yellow painted walls she created a world for herself, for her second husband, Simon Broom, and eventually for her twelve children of which the author was the “babiest.”
Drawing on the entire family’s collective wisdom, which Broom gathered from interviews with family members, as well as on archival research and her intimate knowledge of the greater city, Broom takes the reader on a very personal journey. A journey, which features places left out of the official city maps and histories that never entered the record. Through “pay[ing] attention to what’s not there but once was”, Broom complicates the picture of a city that is often reduced to its tourist attractions (Mardi Gras, the French quarter) and its tragedies (i.a. Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina).
That is not to say, that Broom does not include stories about the water (by which she refers to Katrina) or the iconic French quarter, but she places them within a larger context and tells them otherwise. For example, she focuses on her own experience as a Barista working in the tourist-heavy city center and recalls how she and other “supporting players … that made the wheel turn” were made to feel out of place there. Or, she remembers how her brother Carl continued to mow the lawn on 4121 Wilson Avenue, even long after the Yellow house’s destruction by Katrina.
Through personal anecdotes like this and her emphasis on the quotidian, rather than the spectacular, Broom creates an alternative, and I would argue more complete, narrative of the city than the ones that news outlets, travel guides, history books and the city’s own administration (that Broom briefly worked for as communications director) put forth.
Having read the “The Yellow House” has definitely changed and expanded my own picture of the “The Big Easy,” which I now see with other eyes than when I last visited it in 2016. But perhaps more importantly, the book has inspired me to reflect on places and histories that are important in my own family’s history.