Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
I haven’t read Ellen Urbani’s 2006 memoir, When I Was Elena, but I will certainly do so now after having lived in the world of her stunning debut novel, Landfall.
Urbani is an extraordinary writer with an exceptional gift for entering the consciousness of both black and white characters in America’s South. In Landfall, she vividly portrays the milieu in which they live, comparing, contrasting and showing how culturally entwined the two races are. She knows her contemporary southern life inside and out, and depicts its people in language imbued with the rich vernacular of place.
“He was as country as cornflakes,” she says of a character.
“You be stuck on that boy like hair on a biscuit,” a girl teases.
“Girl, them boys ain’t nobody’s ‘friend.’ They slicker than snot on a door knob,“ warns an old man.
Describing curtains billowing in a room, she writes, “But as the sheers continued to sway, she realized it was pestering from the air conditioner, not the ghost of Hattie McDaniel, that moved them.” The way she uses the word pestering says it all.
The story is set against the horror of Hurricane Katrina, which Urbani depicts as vividly as Stephen Crane did in his masterwork, The Open Boat. She sets us smack in the midst of the rising waters in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Three women clamor up the ladder to the attic as the levee water barrels toward their house.
They pushed the old woman ahead of them as the water swallowed up the stairwell. In concert Cilla shut the trapdoor, Rosy pulled the trunk over it, and the three women threw their bodies atop it as if the flood were a giant they could barricade into another room. They sat wordlessly, stunned. From a long way away, someone screamed, a scream that wouldn’t end, a child-ripped-from-the-arms kind of wail. Below them something metallic bent with a groan. Thunder clapped around them, again and again, but on the third or fourth stroke they realized it wasn’t thunder. It was houses. Every wooden house caught in the upsurge plowed into Maya’s brick façade and dissolved around them.
In the aftermath of the hurricane Urbani takes us to the notorious Superdome and later leads us across the Crescent City Connection Bridge where we are privy to the complex moral issues that arise as African Americans are denied passage to safety on the other side. Of the latter, she bravely juxtaposes the needs of the people of the Ninth Ward to escape, the fears of the whites of a criminal element that has corrupted the fleeing refugees, like ethylene, “the invisible factor behind the ‘bad apple’ theory, whereby one rotten fruit destroys the entire bushel,” and the terror of the young black and white National Guardsmen who are completely unprepared for the job of keeping peace.
The mystery at the center of the book is of two girls, one black, one white, with the same birth date and the same given names. The white girl is Rose and the black girl is Rosebud. They’re fatherless children with mothers who have never recovered from the loss of their men. The book opens at Rose’s mother Gertrude’s funeral. We learn that Gertrude and Rose were in a car accident which killed both Gertrude and a young black woman walking on the road. Rose, haunted by the death of the young woman, feeling compelled to find and tell her family what happened, whoever that family may be, sets out in search of them. She has only snatches of clues, names ripped from a telephone book, the tattoo of a dragonfly, and a business card to guide her. We soon learn that the dead victim is Rosebud, or Rosy as she’s affectionately called, whose mother Cilla has suffered from bipolar episodes since Rosy’s birth. Through richly imagined flashbacks we piece together the lives of the girls and their mothers, of the secrets kept, of shame, of inadequate but loving mothering, of the sturdiness of the two Roses burnished on lives of adversity.
Urbani puts into play a nineteen century literary device of the search for the other to whom you are somehow connected, and how in finding that person you will finally be made whole. As the book proceeded I guessed the secret at the heart of the matter, but it didn’t diminish the reward of discovery at the end. The themes and story lines are so masterfully woven that the conclusion is both emotionally and metaphorically earned, and pleasing in the supreme generosity of the characters. This is a beautiful novel and one that can be read for the pleasure of its splendidly rhythmic and evocative writing as well as the moral tale it tells of the complications, tribulations, and surprising gratifications of our racial struggle in America. As Urbani tells us in the concluding sentence of her book, two of her characters, one black, one white will go together “Into light, toward some unexpected measure of joy.”
Landfall is a book for these difficult times as we Americans continue to do the hard work of reconciliation in our democracy. Everyone who cares about the outcome of our journey should read Urbani’s offering to the literature of social justice and teachers should bring it into the classroom for study by students of all ages. There are rewards for every type of reader between the covers of this fine novel.
Marnie Mueller’s Peace Corps book, Green Fires: A Novel of the Ecuadorian Rainforest, was a winner of the 1995 Maria Thomas Award for Fiction and an American Book Award. The Climate of the Country, her second novel, is set in the Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp, where she was born. My Mother’s Island, which takes place in Puerto Rico, was a BookSense76 selection. She is putting the finishing touches on a memoir of her relationship with a Nisei showgirl who was interned in the Minidoka Camp in Idaho during World War Two.