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Originally appearing at: Voices of New Orleans

By Paul Volponi
Viking 2008
ISBN 0-670-06160-0
144 pages

With Hurricane Song, author Paul Volponi has written a unique and intense novel on Hurricane Katrina for teen readers. Set almost entirely within the Superdome, this is the story of one family and how they coped with the rising tension and severe living conditions in the building both during and after the storm. All the elements many of us heard about in the dome are present here: the oppressive heat and appalling living conditions, the uneven law enforcement presence and the violent episodes from those who took advantage of the situation to harass and rob families taking refuge. The story of Miles, his musician father and uncle and the people they hunker down with is the story that we think we already know from the television and news reports, but by making it personal, by giving it names and faces and a family that has its own drama in place long before the storm, Volponi gives his book a sense of urgency that will shock readers. We think we already knew what happened in the Superdome; sit through several days with Miles, and it hits home in a way that a thirty-second news clip never could.

Hurricane Song opens on Sunday, August 28th with high school sophomore Miles wondering again if he made the right choice in coming to live with his father. His parents divorced when he was small, and he grew up mostly with his mother in Chicago and visited his father over vacations. But she has recently remarried and now has several stepchildren. Miles felt pushed out of the family and when the option to live with his jazz playing father in New Orleans was presented, he jumped at it. The two of them have struggled to connect, however, with Miles not understanding how music can be so important and his father at a loss as to the appeal of football. The two don’t know how to talk through their problems. Miles is beginning to wonder if maybe the relationship is just too strained to salvage. He is still sorting out what to do when Katrina forces him (and his father and uncle) to try and leave. Traffic and car troubles prevent them from making it all the way to Baton Rouge, and they find themselves stuck with only the Superdome. By the second chapter, they are standing in line to get in. Here is what they see:

"National Guard soldiers in camouflage fatigues stood at the door with their machine guns pointed straight up in the air. They looked us over like we’d crossed the border from another country without any papers. I locked eyes with one of them who had a thick square jaw, and his grip on the gun got tighter."

Because they came in at the last minute and had to abandon their car, the family does not have much food (it wouldn't have been an issue in Baton Rouge); as it turns out, a lot of families don’t have enough food. The whole plan behind using the Superdome as a massive shelter might have looked good on paper but the reality that Miles sees proves that the city’s disaster planners did not have a clue. People are hungry and thirsty, there is very little fresh air, and the toilets quickly rebel from overuse. The biggest issue, however, is security. There will always be people who thrive in chaos, and Miles finds himself at odds with a wandering pack of teenage thugs who shake down people for cash. The fact that he knows this group doesn’t make his interactions with them any easier; they are looking for trouble and when they can’t find it, they are happy to make some of their own.

As we know, almost everyone who went into the Superdome came back out. Some of them died there, however — mostly the elderly or the sick — and Volponi does not shy away from this reality. In the end, survival is not the end of the story for Miles as he and his father find themselves, like many other people, learning what matters most when they are surrounded by the sudden loss of everything. It’s not an unexpected ending, but it is certainly a poignant one. By then, after all they have been through, you really really want Miles to have a happy ending. New Orleans has not been getting one, so at least Volponi can make it right for one family; at least he can make all they went through in the Superdome somehow worthwhile.

That’s why we read fiction sometimes; so we can get that ending we all hope for.

Hurricane Song
is a very intense book; almost every page takes place in the dome. I was struck while reading it by how rough it was, and I wanted to find out just how Volponi could be certain that his version of events was true. In a recent email exchange, he explained how he researched the book:

I viewed many online diaries of people who were there, got a chance to ask questions of people who survived the hurricane, got a chance to speak with some people around the country who went down to help, read the news accounts, and watched CNN. I watched one TV interview during the storm of a man who was going to brave anything to go back through the city to see what happened to the club where he played jazz. That incredible passion for a patch of ground instantly inspired me to take on this novel. I think the situation fits my strength as a writer, because as a novelist I consider myself a reporter as well, describing the reflection in society's mirror.

As it happens, Paul Volponi is uniquely suited to write a book about a teenager coping with violent peer pressure; this is a situation he has seen before:

I taught teens to read and write on Rikers Island for six years and have been in the middle of some tense situations and violence, so I may have been able to transfer some of those experiences to the confrontations that occurred inside the Superdome. I realize that not every description in the novel can be exact because I simply wasn't there. Rather, I believe the feelings conveyed in this book are the important thing. And I hope it will give young adult readers, high school and junior high teachers, a chance at a type of historical fiction that teens today have actually lived through and can relate to.

There have been a lot of books written about Katrina and the failure of the levees, but few of them have been written in a way that relates to teenagers. Hurricane Song is one of those rare literary moments where an author and subject that are perfectly suited for each other come together. I’m sure many more people will write novels around Katrina in the future but the story of Miles and his family deserves special note regardless of how crowded this field becomes. This is the story of a teenage boy in a bad place who finds personal courage and family support when he needs them most and when they are in short supply among too many of the people around him. Lucky for readers, it was written by an author who knows his subject all too well and took the time to do his homework and get the story right. Don’t start it until you have a couple of hours to yourself — this is one you won’t be able put down. I promise.

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