Review of “Between Two Skies” by Joanne O’Sullivan

Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in southeast Louisiana on August 29, 2005 was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States.

Overall, at least 1,245 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods, and total property damage was estimated at $108 billion in 2005 U.S. dollars. The most severe damage occurred in the coastal areas, with ground zero at the low-lying area of Plaquemines Parish. As CBS News reported:

“[The storm left] the landscape dotted with smashed, grounded boats, homes torn apart and flooded. Fishing, shrimping and oyster fleets were destroyed. Around 990,000 gallons of oil were released and towns were flooded with contaminated water.”

Some homes were under 26 feet of water, and even ten years later, those communities were still picking up the pieces.

This young adult novel is set in fictional Bayou Perdu, one of the small communities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in Plaquemines Parish – “the place where Louisiana takes its last breath before plunging into the Gulf of Mexico.”

In August of 2005, the heroine of the story, Evangeline Riley, was just turning 16. Evangeline had won the under-sixteen fishing rodeo; like her dad who was a shrimp fisherman, she loved being out on the water. She felt like if she didn’t spend time on the water, she would shrivel up: “Thoughts come to me when I’m on the water. It’s clear who I am out here. Not who I am compared to anyone else. ” She also loved the ecosystem of the bayou:

“The most beautiful birds you’ve ever seen – roseate spoonbills, blue herons, and snowy egrets – build their nests in our marshes in the winter and teach their babies to fly here.”

Roseate Spoonbills in a Louisiana Bayou

Just as much as she appreciated the biota, she relished the human ecosystem of Coastal Louisiana, with its mix of French, Italian, Irish, Croatian, Spanish, Vietnamese: “America may be a melting pot, but Louisiana is a gumbo pot.” She cherished its unique mix of languages, cultures, music, food, and even looks.

[This book is a bit rosy on the picture of inclusive diversity it paints; Louisiana regularly shows up in lists of “top ten racist U.S. states.” Louisianian David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan big shot and perennial political candidate, founded the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) in 2000. His one-time partner Don Black started the notorious white nationalist site Stormfront. Newspaper stories surface with disturbing frequency about racist incidents occurring in a variety of settings ranging from a high school reunion to a college fraternity, and even to a recent incident involving a racist judge. Thankfully, however, there are pockets of acceptance in the state, and this story highlights one of them. Also current Mayor Mitch Landrieu has played an important role in advocating for the embrace of pluralism. But there is still a persistent culture of “white-on-white just-between-us” exchanges that tends to militate against progress in integration.]

But none of that mattered with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. It was the day of Evangeline’s 16th birthday when her family got word that the huge hurricane was on the way, and that they must evacuate. They headed to the home of a relative in Atlanta, Georgia, and were heartbroken upon hearing about the destruction that came to the Gulf Coast. It was a long time before they were assigned a trailer home back in the area so they could return.

FEMA trailer park in Baker, La., – one of 132 group sites housing an estimated 298,000 people in Louisiana who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina (Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe)

[Less than 24 hours after the New Orleans levees broke, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), set up contracts with trailer companies to provide housing for people whose homes were destroyed in the flood. Since 80 percent of New Orleans, plus a whole lot of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coastline, had been flooded, the necessity for housing was overwhelming. FEMA needed some 120,000 trailers, far outstripping existing supply, so they had to be produced. Not covered in the book is the fact that many of these trailers tested for dangerous levels of formaldehyde – about 40 times the recommended levels. You can read more about that situation here.]

Striking image of the inside of a church in Plaquemines Parish after the hurricane (Credit: Radhika Chalasani)

In the meanwhile, Evangeline and her sister Mandy enrolled in school in Atlanta, where each of them had different adjustment problems. Mandy was no longer the popular, sought-after girl she was back in Bayou Perdu, and Evangeline felt lost without the bayou itself:

“I miss the water, the birds, the wind through the marsh grass. I miss the sunset and the sound of that hard, hard rain falling on the roof. I miss the smell of salt in the air, that awful heat rising up from the docks. I feel sore all the time from all the missing. Bruises just beneath the surface. Invisible.”

But then she ran into another evacuee at her school she had met back home, and had briefly crushed on: Tru Nguyen. She felt happiness again for the first time: “I am bursting. All those SAT words that mean ecstatic. Ebullient. Elated.”

Tru was attracted to her as well and they tentatively began a relationship. Although the dark clouds of her life now were “edged by silver,” she couldn’t help feeling like her namesake, Evangeline, the heroine of the poem by Longfellow about the Acadians who fled Canada and ended up in Louisiana, becoming known as Cajuns. The poetic Evangeline is separated from her love and her home, but she can’t deny the “inexpressible sweetness” of Louisiana. As Evangeline recounted, “Above her is the Louisiana sky. Below is its reflection in the water. She is there in her boat, suspended in the middle, ‘hanging between two skies.’” This Evangeline felt that way too.

A Louisiana Bayou

Evangeline and Tru hardly began acknowledging their feelings for one another, however, before their parents inadvertently intervened. Tru was taken back to the coast to work on his father’s fishing boat, and Evangeline accompanied her own father to their assigned trailer near their old home. Before she left though, her school counselor gave her a blank journal with a quote written on the inside cover by Camus she said reminded her of Evangeline: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

At this point though, almost everyone had been separated; not only Evangeline and Tru, but Evangeline and her friends from before the storm, and Evangeline’s family, now divided into two parts.

Where would fate lead them all? As Tru once said to Evangeline, “I think the things we love are what lead us to our fate, you know? Maybe that’s what fate is. When you catch up to the things you love.” The Epilogue two years after the storm lets us know how it worked out.

August 2015 – 150 sustainable homes were built in New Orleans by the Make it Right organization founded by actor Brad Pitt

Evaluation: This is a gem of a book. It is not only a lovely story about coming-of-age and young love, but about the varied response to a calamitous disaster by both the government and the people in the country who responded in different ways to it. It is also a stirring tribute to Louisiana. It is perhaps best expressed through music as it was in the book, and as it is in this video shown below. The clip shows the incomparable Billie Holiday (accompanied by Louis Armstrong) singing “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” (written by Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter), the lyrics for which include:

“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day
I know I’m not wrong this feeling’s gettin’ stronger
The longer, I stay away
Miss them moss covered vines the tall sugar pines
Where mockin’ birds used to sing
And I’d like to see that lazy Mississippi hurryin’ into spring

The moonlight on the bayou a creole tune that fills the air
I dream about magnolias in bloom and I’m wishin’ I was there . . . . “

Rating: 4/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2017

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2 Responses to Review of “Between Two Skies” by Joanne O’Sullivan

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    This does sound like a gem. We lived in Auburn at the time and many of the people who were evacuated to the area decided to remain there because of what they would face when they returned home.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful review, Jill. This sounds like a must read. Most of what I heard and learned about the hurricane, it’s impact and what followed came by way of the news and in books. Books like this really bring it home to those of us who weren’t directly impacted.

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