When New Orleans is conjured in our imaginations, images of the French Quarter usually come to mind. Bourbon Street. Jackson Square. St. Louis Cathedral. The less than one-square-mile neighborhood has long been a synecdoche for a city that covers nearly 350 square miles with a population of over 300,000. To read of New Orleans means, more often than not, to read about the French Quarter. This was the case when Sarah M. Broom started writing her memoir, The Yellow House. Raised in New Orleans East—as the far eastern side of the city is called—Broom had trouble finding information about her home neighborhood.

“I have stacked 12 or 13 history-telling books about New Orleans” in search of New Orleans East, Broom begins her project. “Mentions are rare and spare, afterthoughts.” The Yellow House, then, is the first book of its kind. At once a memoir, it’s also a history of where the author grew up and where her family is from. A journalist, Broom is a keen researcher and it shows as we get an extensive overview of this neglected part of the legendary southern city.

We learn, for instance, that before the ‘60s, the area that would become New Orleans East “was a vast swath of land, more than 40,000 acres.” Looking at this wilderness (though there were a few Black communities already living there), developers Toddie Lee Wynee and Clint “Midas Touch” Murchison saw opportunity, and through New Orleans East Inc. purchased the area. Under the mayorship of Chep Morrison, the development of the newly named New Orleans East was expected to “surpass anything that has been done in the past,” and as Broom recounts, everyone believed so too. A New York Times headline referred to the East as a “city within a city rising in the south” and the Times-Picayune proclaimed it the “biggest thing in years.” Developers saw the East as a place “ripe for development,” an extension, Broom notes, of New Orleans’s founding story: if the city’s forefathers could build a metropolis in a vast swamp below sea-level, these new sons living in the Space Age (New Orleans East already boasted a NASA facility) could tame this “new frontier,” as one reporter called the area at the time.

It is into this area where Ivory Mae, Broom’s mother, would move, buying a small not yet yellow house for $3,200. Ivory Mae would raise eleven children in that house with her husband Simon Broom. Additions to the house would be added on and the eldest children would marry and move away before the author is born (“I am the babiest, I am told, last and smallest” she writes in a flashback). And not long after that—six months—Simon Broom would pass away in the bathroom, of an aneurysm that will give the house a haunted feeling and leave Broom yearning to know more about her roots even as she goes to school in Texas and California, finds a job in New York and flees temporarily to Burundi.

The heart of this elegant memoir is the yellow house of the title, which becomes yellow when it gets renovated with “pristine vinyl siding” installed to cover rotten wood. The yellow house represents a dream—the American dream, perhaps—of a home of one’s own: “I always dreamt I would have this house that was so pretty,” Ivory Mae recollects. “It was gonna have a nice front yard, a big backyard…It wasn’t a big ole house, just a nice house.”

As we see the yellow house fall victim to age, Hurricane Betsy (a mismanaged natural disaster which would repeat itself decades later with Katrina) and the general neglect New Orleans East under the city’s poor leadership, we see the family, too, hit by troubled times. One of Broom’s sisters is hit by a car. A brother battles addiction and habitually steals appliances from the yellow house to pawn. Broom, too, finds herself truant from school, and Ivory Mae—a loving, hardworking and practical mother—enrolls her in a private school. Through all of this and more, the house, in its deterioration, becomes a place of shame for the children and their mother. “You know this house not all that comfortable for other people,” is a general refrain among the family members. Ivory Mae, in particular, feels the despair: “I didn’t have the nice stuff. Furniture was nice, but compared to what other people had….We still had heaters when everybody else had central.”

The teenage Broom tries to steer her friends away from the yellow house out of embarrassment. Writing, and for a time religion, becomes an escape for Broom. But, as she finds out years later when she returns to New Orleans, we don’t just inhabit a place, we “carried the weight of the actual house around in our bodies.”

The Yellow House is a delicately rendered personal history of family and place. The characterizations of her family members are insightful and written so vividly that one comes to understand them, their histories, their psychologies as if they were our own family members known to us our entire lives. This is particularly true for Ivory Mae, who Broom characterizes lovingly as the resilient matriarch of the household. It’s also true for Carl, Broom’s brother who is at turns tough and tender as he guards the yellow house in its final days, “babysitting ruins.”

At the same time, Broom’s memoir is a sociological document that shows how one’s personal lives are often subject the whims of politics and geography. This becomes most evident later in the book after Hurricane Katrina leaves its marks, displaces the Broom family (as well as many other New Orleanians) and the futile efforts to navigate bureaucracy and salvage the yellow house of her youth.

“When you come from a mythologized place, as I do,” writes Broom, “who are you in that story?” To answer that, Broom has written a sprawling memoir of intense feeling. Thoroughly researched and written with an historian’s eye for detail, The Yellow House is pitch-perfect and destined to become a landmark of New Orleanian literature.

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