By Josie E. Davis
A pickup truck, watery glints polishing the corners of its bed a glossy cherry, sets out into a foggy night lit by ignis fatuus—blurry, wavering globes already swallowing the headlights. “We left in the dark of night,” reads the text on the facing page. So begins Jennifer Shaw’s remarkable memoir/artist’s-book/photo-essay of a young family’s odyssey out of and back to New Orleans in the late summer and autumn of 2005.
Hurricane Story comprises forty-six photographs taken with a plastic Holga camera: a camera like a toy, used here to shoot tableaux made by other toys and dolls set against backgrounds that glow dully from shadows, like outtakes from a dream. Paired with each photograph is a page of text: one line each at the bottom of the white expanse. The story covers the period from late August, just before the onset of Hurricane Katrina, until Mardi Gras of the next year. During this time the narrator and her husband experience the birth of their first child, coincidentally on the same day that Katrina made landfall; visit friends and family from Alabama to Massachusetts and more than a dozen locations in between; struggle with their own emotions of rage and sadness and the helplessness of exile; and then finally make their way back to New Orleans, where they find their house ravaged by mice and spiders and begin the long process of healing their home and celebrating the brave and determined rebirth—“anointed in glitter” both literal and spiritual—of their city.
I love several things about this book. One is the paradox of its small size coupled with the largeness of its scope: the richness of its modesty, like a medieval book of hours. About the plastic Holga camera that she used to make the pictures, the author has commented that its “simplicity . . . allows me to work from of place of intuition, responding directly to the things that move me,” and in his Foreword to the book, fellow New Orleanian Rob Walker observes that there is something “fearlessly right” about these seemingly “unreal” scenes. I think that this sense of rightness is indeed directly related to the modesty of the materials; there is a quality of intimacy in these tiny tableaux made of plastic dolls and animals that feels like the quality of memory itself. As such, the book really redefines memoir by veritably enacting it: an idea gorgeous both in itself and in its execution here, especially in the colors—reds, blues, and browns that are velvety, fuzzed, and shimmering by turns.
Another wonderful thing about the book is how slyly it fulfills Chin Music Press’s mission to find “new ways to tell stories about our world” at the cusp of the new millennium. Hurricane Story is an ideal expression of CMP’s dedication not only to storytelling but to the art of the printed book, because this is a book that has to be a book—a physical book, since the act of paging through it with one’s fingers is essential to the effect of the memory play it has staged. The vulnerability of these glimmering pictures and spare lines of text—so touching in their own acknowledgement of all that can’t be said—can only be fully experienced in this medium, one humble, yet beautiful, and portable in itself.
The structure of the book—its guiding ethos of modesty and sparseness—necessarily leaves gaps. On the one hand, there are the gaps left in the private family narrative. Shaw’s husband’s episodes of violent anger are encapsulated in four panels with captions like “My husband turned into a freak” and “Bad habits resumed.” These are effective because together with the accompanying photos, they give the reader the material with which to imagine the rest, and besides, this approach fits so well the whole attitude of reticence, both wry and unassuming, that weaves through the entire book. On the other hand, the gaps left in the narrative of the city and the hurricane—the quickness with which Hurricane Story rushes to its redemptive conclusion—could strike some readers as problematic. Shaw and her family were clearly among the lucky ones, not only in being able to return home at all but in being able to welcome back their friends and to receive help from FEMA (all of which is chronicled in the panels). It’s notable that there is little attention given to the thousands, including the city’s poorer inhabitants, who weren’t so fortunate.
Yet in the end, the reader understands that the beauty of this work lies in the very obliqueness of its angle to the more traditional, realistic, panoramic documentary that would have deliberately sought to make an all-inclusive statement. Hurricane Story is a miniature—an unabashed miniature, at once polite and audacious in its insistence on the importance of one family’s experience of a paradigm-changing natural disaster. In its honesty, reserve, and visual innovation, it is a vital piece in the mosaic of Hurricane Katrina memoirs, novels, and films. It is also a beautiful, strange, and provocative piece of art in its own right. May it find a great audience of readers, viewers, and sympathetic dreamers.
Cara Diaconoff is the author of a story collection, Unmarriageable Daughters (Lewis-Clark Press, 2008) and two novels, I’ll Be a Stranger to You, (forthcoming by Outpost19 e-books, 2011), and Marian Hall, which is currently seeking publication. Her stories have appeared individually in Indiana Review, Other Voices, South Dakota Review, and descant; her work has won fellowships from the Indiana Arts Commission, the Utah Arts Council, and the MacDowell Colony. www.caradiaconoff.com.