Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Praise for Katrina: Mississippi Women Remember

Amazing Grace
By Susan Larson
Note: This piece originally appeared on Sunday, July 8 in The New Orleans Times Picayune

What solace and solidarity we can find in books -- even in stories of shared misery and determination! "Katrina: Mississippi Women Remember" is just such a book, filled with stories of Mississippi women who survived the storm, and photographs of damage to the coastal cities there.

I love this book. I love the women in it. I love the way Ellen Gilchrist sounds the trumpet call for her fellow Mississippians in her introduction: "The woman who washed off the CD needed to reprogram the computer in her newly installed replacement toilet (which was the only source of water in the house) is the sort of woman I want with me when disaster strikes." Amen to that.

And we know these women: We know Ann Guice, who says, in one of my favorite essays, "Stuff," responding to people who tell her, "you only lost stuff." "Well, that may be philosophically accurate," Guice writes, "and I can understand what they mean. I give thanks every day that I have my life, my family, and my future. But folks, my stuff was great and it was my stuff. I never made a purchase without some reason, emotional, personal or absurd. I have a story for every purchase. I can tell you about the fabulous ten-dollar pink vintage cocktail dress I wore to a banquet . . . Everyone has emotional attachments to their belongings, or the belongings wouldn't belong to you. The rocking chair that was Billy's great-grandmother's is not just a chair. What would you do if someone walked into your home and said you have a bunch of stuff?"

Cookie Bello of Pearlington, whose daughter-in-law rescued a baby in a Tupperware container, survived the storm, but her house didn't. In the aftermath, she said, "People were so good to us and kept asking what we needed. I always said, 'We need a house!' Hopefully I will get one again one day." We know just how that feels.

Melanie Reimer Moore of Pascagoula finds humor in "Attitude Adjustment": "You might be a Katrina victim if some of your best friends are homeless people, if in your mind the phrase 'shock and awe' has absolutely nothing to do with Iraq, if your revised hurricane preparation list now includes a rubber dinghy, an axe, and a whistle, if you are addicted to the very cell phone you only tolerated before 8/29/05, if you are still wearing your nice earrings but are wearing other people's cast-off clothing and are thrilled to have it."

These narratives, in brief episodic bursts, evoke the horrors of the storm itself and the aftermath, the emptied landscape of the Mississippi Coast. "There is hope, and there is remembrance now," Marjie Gowdy of Ocean Springs wrote in 2006. And more than since then, there is progress.

Photographer Melody Golding was drawn to document the devastation of her state (her mother's home is in this book), and her photographs have that terrible beauty and tragedy, disjointed and coexistent, of that time. The book is beautifully designed and produced, and editor Sally Pfister of Mobile chose and ordered these narratives wonderfully. Proceeds benefit Mississippi Women artists.

The book concludes with a "Coda" by Mary Anderson Pickard, whose home at Shearwater Pottery proved to be one of the most fragile. She was tempted to move to Arkansas, but "recognized in time that life is 'on the edge' no matter where one lives . . . In the words of a poem I wrote after Camille," she writes, "I have pulled my boat much higher up the beach, and tied it to a taller tree."

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