City of Refuge by Tom Piazza
A Novel

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In the heat of late summer, two New Orleans families—one black and one white—confront a storm that will change the course of their lives.

SJ Williams, a carpenter and widower, lives and works in the Lower Ninth Ward, the community where he was born and raised. His sister, Lucy, is a soulful mess, and SJ has been trying to keep her son, Wesley, out of trouble. Across town, Craig Donaldson, a Midwestern transplant and the editor of the city's alternative paper, faces deepening cracks in his own family. New Orleans' music and culture have been Craig's passion, but his wife, Alice, has never felt comfortable in the city. The arrival of their two children has inflamed their arguments about the wisdom of raising a family there.

When the news comes of a gathering hurricane—named Katrina—the two families make their own very different plans to weather the storm. The Donaldsons join the long evacuation convoy north, across Lake Pontchartrain and out of the city. SJ boards up his windows and brings Lucy to his house, where they wait it out together, while Wesley stays with a friend in another part of town.

But the long night of wind and rain is only the beginning—and when the levees give way and the flood waters come, the fate of each family changes forever. The Williamses are scattered—first to the Convention Center and the sweltering Superdome, and then far beyond city and state lines, where they struggle to reconnect with one another. The Donaldsons, stranded and anxious themselves, find shelter first in Mississippi, then in Chicago, as Craig faces an impossible choice between the city he loves and the family he had hoped to raise there.

Ranging from the lush neighborhoods of New Orleans to Texas, Missouri, Chicago, and beyond, City of Refuge is a modern masterpiece—a panoramic novel of family and community, trial and resilience, told with passion, wisdom, and a deep understanding of American life in our time.


About Tom Piazza

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Tom Piazza is the author of ten books, including the novels City of Refuge, which won the Willie Morris Award, and My Cold War, as well as the book-length essay Why New Orleans Matters. He writes for HBO’s hit drama series Treme and is at work on a new novel. He lives in New Orleans.
Published October 6, 2009 by HarperCollins e-books. 432 pages
Genres: Literature & Fiction. Fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for City of Refuge

Kirkus Reviews

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In their confrontations with death, their accidental separation and disorienting relocations (Missouri, upstate New York), SJ, Lucy and Wesley (eventually reunited in Houston) are simply more real.

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The New York Times

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Varied experiences, similar resolves in this novel set in Hurricane Katrina’s wake.

Sep 14 2008 | Read Full Review of City of Refuge: A Novel

Christian Science Monitor

After the levees break in New Orleans, wiping out his Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, Williams manages to get his sister to safety, and then spends two days ferrying people in a dinghy, rowing with a board and blistered hands.

Aug 25 2008 | Read Full Review of City of Refuge: A Novel

San Francisco Chronicle

Less than three months after Hurricane Katrina left his city swamped, the New Orleans author Tom Piazza (known best as a music writer) published a 167-page gust of prose titled "Why New Orleans Matters."

Sep 09 2008 | Read Full Review of City of Refuge: A Novel

Open Letters Monthly

Toward the end, as we go apartment-hunting with Alice in Chicago and follow Craig’s conversations with a realtor in New Orleans, and the novel has morphed into a kind of primer on post-Katrina housing prices, Piazza seems to realize that he’s written himself miles away from the things that matter...

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Review (Barnes & Noble)

By focusing on individual choices people were forced to make moment by moment, day by day, City of Refuge becomes as powerful as the television images that kept us glued to the screen during those terrible August days.

Oct 06 2008 | Read Full Review of City of Refuge: A Novel

Austin Chronicle

As a chronicler of life in New Orleans, before and after Hurricane Katrina, author and critic Tom Piazza made his mark with Why New Orleans Matters, a cultural history of the Crescent City.

Oct 31 2008 | Read Full Review of City of Refuge: A Novel

Book Chase

... Craig Donaldson, despite his Michigan roots, loves the city as much as anyone born ... The novel deserves praise for vividly recreating what happened in New ..... Book Review: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott - From ...... Call Me Infidel - Nonie Darwish - 4.0 · Sole Survivor...

Sep 08 2009 | Read Full Review of City of Refuge: A Novel

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