Before I get into NOLA Gals, I need to apologize for posting late. I’d been traveling, and also began my grad program last week. Luckily, I still managed to find enough time to finish this novel.
NOLA Gals by Barbara J. Rebbeck gives us Essence and Grace, two fourteen-year-old girls brought together by Hurricane Katrina, and Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Essence and her little sister Chardonnai are poor Black refugees from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. They go from their flooded home to the Superdome, then to the Astrodome. There, they meet Grace, a rich White teenager, who’s volunteering with her dad. Grace and Essence bond over To Kill a Mockingbird. Soon, Essence and Chardonnai are taken in by Grace’s family while hoping to reunite with their own.
Reading that summary, you’re probably thinking the same thing I was: two girls from different worlds become friends and bridge the race and class gap between them. And that does happen, but the novel feels more like a love letter to Harper Lee than a coherent novel. Even the author’s Afterwords was about Lee’s book, rather than the story I’d just finished.
I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird twice and seen the movie multiple times. It’s a fantastic work and I really enjoy it. The constant references to Mockingbird were frustrating because readers who aren’t familiar with it would get as much out of the out of Nola Gals as they could. It also reminded me that I could be reading a better book.
After a promising start, I found myself losing interest in NOLA Gals. It wasn’t a hard book to read, and natural disaster stories fascinate me. I had to learn to manage my expectations. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but I had come into the book with certain assumptions that didn’t get fulfilled.
The first issue I met with was that NOLA Gals was listed as a young adult novel. The term “young adult” puts me in mind of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. I expected it to be both accessible, but have depth. As I read, though, I realized that NOLA Gals isn’t what I normally think of YA fiction. It read more like a middle-grade novel. There’s nothing wrong with that; even now I read middle-grade books. It just meant that I had to change my expectations about this book, and once I did, found it more enjoyable.
One of the biggest tells was the lack of subtlety on the part of our antagonists, the elitist families whose children attend the prestigious St. Catherine’s high school. These parents and students don’t believe that the Black refugees from Hurricane Katrina belong at their school, and they have no qualms about showing it.
‘This whole New Orleans business…these strange girls…” Mr. Townsend said, putting his arm around his wife.
‘Now honey, don’t sound like a southern bigot. As long as they keep their distance and don’t really mix in with our girls.’
‘You know they call themselves ‘gals.’ That New Orleans is as corrupt as the day is long. Some say Katrina was a fitting punishment for their sins,’ Mrs. Booth said, stroking her husband’s arm.
‘I thought the Woodsons had more sense than to take those girls in. I hope they are checking to see if the little brats have stolen them blind yet.’ [. . .]
‘You know there are black students at Saint Cat’s already,’ Mrs. Townsend said. ‘I saw a couple the last time I was there for a bake sale.’
‘Oh, yes, but you can’t compare them to those NOLA kids. Their dads are all professional. They almost belong. At least they can pay the tuition.’
We’re living in a weird time when it comes to race, with, unfortunately, more people feeling comfortable sharing their true racist rhetoric. However, most racism tends to be subtle. In a conversation like this in real life, you’re going to get more dog whistles that someone straight up saying, “The Black kids don’t belong here.” Especially in 2005 and 2006, when we didn’t have actual White supremacists marching through the streets.
I even remember Kanye West’s outburst during a Katrina telethon when he told the world, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people!”
Watching with my mom, we were both stunned, jaws hanging open. “Even if it’s true,” my mom started, “you can’t just say that!”
Sad to think that was a more innocent time.
I could get over the blatant hate – managing expectations – but I had a harder time getting past some of the writing itself. Writers are so often told, “show, don’t tell” to the point where it’s become cliché, but is nevertheless advice the author badly needed to hear.
I’ll give you the most egregious example. Essence and Chardonnai were separated from their family, and their grandmother died in the hurricane’s aftermath. They have no idea if their mother is alive or dead. When they finally reunite for the first time in more than a month, this is what we get.
The doorbell rang and there was Dr. Woodson and my mama. I was so happy I jumped into her arms.
That’s it. There’s no emotional payoff for what should be a moving scene. I’d been looking forward to the girls’ reunion with their mother. There should be a lot of different, possibly conflicting emotions here: joy, relief, sorrow, anger. Instead, we get a couple sentences that make what could have been a touching and memorable moment totally forgettable.
To me, a great novel needs solid prose, interesting, well-developed characters, and a plot I can really sink my teeth into. It’s okay if a book is lacking in any of these aspects; great. characters can make up for overused tropes, or a gripping plot helps me ignore bad writing. Since we’ve already looked at the writing, let’s take a look at the characters.
Grace is a spoiled fourteen-year-old who loves sipping stolen drinks poolside with her friends, American Idol, and her forbidden MySpace page. She’s very much a typical teenager at the start of the book. After volunteering at the Astrodome to help Katrina refugees, her world opens up. She befriends Essence and Chardonnai, welcoming them into her home and school. Grace goes from a bratty teenager to a conscientious, hard working girl over the course of the novel.
Then there’s her counterpart, Essence. Unfortunately, the main trait I would use to describe her is “scared”. “Scared”, however, isn’t a personality type so much as a reaction to her situation. The hurricane left her traumatized, and we don’t see much of her before Katrina strikes. We do know that she’s protective of her little sister, a bit stubborn, and feels out of place after she leaves New Orleans. Most of Essence’s story is spent worrying about her family, and wishing she were home. But apart from that, I don’t know if there’s much left to day about Essence.
And that’s where our plot comes in. It meanders about like a slice-of-life story, but doesn’t feel cohesive. Grace and Essence’s paths diverge and become disconnected with one another. There are plot hooks that never get resolved. But the characters lack something that makes them, and the story, compelling. They lack any agency of their own. Both girls are swept along by circumstances outside of their control: Essence by the hurricane, and Grace by pressure from her school and family.
This would actually be fine for Essence, at least for awhile. Being adrift and losing her family would make anyone feel helpless and vulnerable. It’s a major part of her character arc. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go anywhere beyond that, apart from making a couple surly comments. I kept waiting for Essence to have her big moment, to take a stand. But it never happened. She was dragged through the story without taking an active role in it.
Grace’s treatment is a little better as we watch her develop into a kinder, more worldly person. The experiences she has that help her grow are thrust upon her for the most part, usually at the behest of her parents and teachers. To be fair, that’s true for most fourteen-year-olds. She also has a moment of courage in the climax, defending Mockingbird in front of the racist parents who want it removed from the school’s curriculum.
At another critical moment, though, Grace fails to act. Essence and Chardonnai are taken back to New Orleans by their estranged father, and no one in Houston knows where they’ve gone. After a few weeks, Grace receives a letter from Essence. In it, Essence tells Grace where she is, but asks her not to tell anyone. After about ten seconds of feeling guilty, Grace decides that she’ll keep Essence’s secret.
Which brings me to my final disappointment with this book: the important stuff happens off-screen.
The resolution of the climax for both girls – missing Essence and Grace’s defence of Mockingbird – are written as afterthoughts. In the last chapter, Grace and Essence meet again in New Orleans. In just a couple sentences, we’re told that Mockingbird will remain a part of the school’s curriculum, and that Grace finally told her parents about Essence’s letter. Instead of potentially interesting internal conflict, a lot of things get hand-waved away for a suspiciously happy ending.
NOLA Gals started out promising, and there were parts of the book that were genuinely moving. The short chapters written from the point of view of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were fantastic, and even a little frightening. It was a book that had a lot of ideas that never quite fed into each other smoothly. Although I must concede that this book wasn’t written with me in mind. If it’s something you think you would enjoy, check it out for yourself.
At this point, I have to ask myself: did I learn anything from the book? To be completely honest, I didn’t think it gave me much insight until I started reflecting on dialogue choice while writing this. I feel like, when I was growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, racism was treated kind of like sex. You could assume other people were engaged in it, you would whisper about it, but you’d never just straight up talk about it. Or if you did – and this is still the case – you hedge your controversial statements with, “it was a joke!” or, “I’m just sayin’.” Maybe that’s not how things really were, and I was ignorant. But that’s how I perceived it.
But I look around me now, and there’s less hedging. People feel bolder, safer in saying what they mean without a qualifier. Things are becoming more like the party scene, where racists – surrounded by their friends – feel comfortable to expose their hate. They feel justified in having it.
I want to say that I don’t like the direction that we’re going in with this. But, looking around me, that’s not fair to say. It’s not a “direction”. This is where we are right now.
And while I felt that NOLA Gals could use some polishing, I’ve got to give credit where it’s do. To characters like Grace and Essence, like Scout and Atticus, and to people like Barbara Rebbeck and Harper Lee.