"The Yellow House" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
In this powerful memoir, author Sarah Broom writes about her mother, Ivory Mae, paying $3200 in 1964 for a shotgun house on Wilson Street in the predominantly black, working-class suburb of New Orleans East. When Ivory Mae was only 19, she purchased the home with the life insurance money from her first husband’s death with the intent of establishing a stable life for her family.
“The newspapers fell hard for New Orleans East. Here was a story with possibility for high drama involving men and money and wetlands, dreaming, and draining, and emergence and fate.”
The mid 1960’s was the pinnacle of the space race with Russia and many of the people in the New Orleans East neighborhood worked at the nearby NASA factory. It was also when Ivory Mae would marry her second husband, Simon Broom, who worked as a custodian at the plant and moonlighted playing the banjo and trombone in a jazz band.
Ivory Mae and Simon combined their families and had children together. Sarah was born in 1979, the youngest of 12 children. Six months after she was born, Simon passed away leaving Ivory Mae the lone steward of the crumbling house. The yellow house became Ivory Mae’s 13th and most “belligerent unyielding child.”
“The Yellow House" recounts a century of Sarah’s family stories as they relate to their home, located seven miles from the hustle and bustle of “The Big Easy.” Ivory Mae tries diligently to keep the house in good condition, sewing colorful curtains to brighten the rooms and making small, much needed repairs. Rats and lizards find their way inside however, linoleum peels at the edges and underneath the kitchen sink is a slick growth of mold.
“This house not all that comfortable for other people,” becomes Ivory’s standard answer when her children want to have friends for sleepovers. Ivory Mae’s vacillation between pride in the home she purchased herself and “slow creeping” shame for the poverty that prevents her from maintaining it, comprises one of the book’s most heart wrenching themes.
Sarah flees New Orleans East and makes her home in New York City as soon as she is of age. But the runaway daughter soon finds she must attend to the inexorable pull exerted by home. Broom describes in emotional detail the power of clan, pride, and family love that draws her back to New Orleans.
In deeply moving prose Broom ponders what it means to belong to a place, even though her native city tolerates inequality, racism, classism and shame. Through her musings, she brilliantly draws parallels between her family’s experiences to wider, social conflicts and cultural movements. She does this in part by skillfully weaving together the descendancy of the house and the ascendancy of her own personhood.
New Orleans conjures images of the French Quarter, Mardi Gras, jazz and Saints football. It is a city known for tourism and for housing countless aspiring artists and writers. But this memoir is about a section of New Orleans not found in travel brochures or seen on bus tours. There are no notable literary pieces telling stories about New Orleans East, until now.
Broom masters walking the line between investigative journalism and the story of a prodigal daughter. Here is a story for a general audience of nonfiction readers and an account of a Southern community that social scientists should find challenging and insightful.