Middle Grade Review: Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ninth Ward

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

From GoodReads: Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. She doesn’t have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya’s visions show a powerful hurricane–Katrina–fast approaching, it’s up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm.

Well, I feel absolutely gutted after reading this. It’s like watching Titanic, you know what’s going to happen, but it still punches you in the gut anyway. The story is absolutely beautiful. It celebrates family, even if that family isn’t blood. It celebrates community and how that can be like extended family. But it really shines in celebrating Lanesha and her rebirth as someone who knows that she can weather the storms, physical and metaphorical, that life brings.

Lanesha is such a wonderful character. She’s lonely and kids at school pick on her because she was born with a caul and was birthed by Mama Ya-Ya and not in the hospital. Usually she tries to keep her head down in school, but she finally decides to reach out to a few of the other students who are picked on and this leads to a life-saving friendship with TaShon. She also discovers she is good at math and wants to become an engineer through some interactions with her new teacher.

The relationship between Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya is especially poignant. Mama Ya-Ya gives Lanesha life again and again. First she births her; then cuts her caul giving her air; then raises her when her mother dies in childbirth. She loves Lanesha as a mother and grandmother, showing her what family means despite the rejection of Lanesha by her mother’s Uptown family. Finally Mama Ya-Ya imparts her strength through her love and knowledge to Lanesha. By drawing on the memory of that love Lanesha is able to dig deep and find an inner strength when her survival is at stake.

It’s the ending that really makes the book though. Lanesha, with the help of TaShon, Mama Ya-Ya and the ghost of her mother survives the storm and flood. The last line “I’m Mama Ya-Ya’s girl” shows Lanesha taking Mama Ya-Ya into her, making her a part of her that cannot be lost or forgotten or washed away. It’s Mama Ya-Ya giving Lanesha the last, but most important, part of her. Despite the horrific situation Lanesha is in (the aftermath of Katrina was far from over three days after the storm) you know she will continue to survive and thrive.

The scenes of the neighborhood are also really lovely. Rhodes doesn’t focus on the run down aspects or danger of the Ninth Ward, which is incredibly refreshing. Lanesha never seems like she’s pulling herself out of poverty and Rhodes doesn’t sound like she’s trying to get some message across. We see the Ninth Ward through Lanesha’s eyes and she sees her neighbors, who sound a lot like mine. Some friendly. Some not. Some willing to help out. Others only out for themselves. People with homes they care about. People who work hard and come home at night to their families.

The book may be a hard sell to a lot of kids, but I think readers who like friendship stories and stories about family will be taken with the book. Kids who like magical realism will find that here too. Lanesha was born with a caul, she has second sight and sees ghosts.  It would be a fabulous story to use in an English class or even a history class that covers current events. Certainly it would reflect kids who live in working class neighborhoods and might appeal to them simply for that mirror, but I think it’s got broader appeal for anyone who likes well written characters and stories about finding inner strength and strong family ties.