Friday, November 25, 2011

Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods

Is Hurricane Katrina becoming it's own genre these days? In the past year I've seen two middle readers and one picture book dealing with Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. This partial list doesn't even take into account the plethora of adult fiction about the Hurricane. This seems odd since the storm was barely five years ago and it took much, much longer for children's books using September 11, 2001 as a backdrop to start appearing.

Today we're taking a look at the newest addition to the Katrina cannon, a middle reader from Brenda Woods called Saint Louis Armstrong Beach.

The Deal: Saint Louis Armstrong Beach is a little boy with a big name to live up to. Like his Grandaddy Saint and his other namesake, Louis Armstrong, Saint has the music in him. Nothing makes him happier than busking for tourists, dreaming of one day affording his dream clarinet, and playing with "his" dog, a neighborhood stray named Shadow. His former best friend MonaLisa is growing up too fast and refuses to talk to him anymore, which would hurt even if he didn't have a crush on her. When another friend, with a crush of her own, tells Saint that he has an extra short lifeline he becomes determined to live for 99 years, just to prove her wrong. Unfortunately for him, a tropical storm named Katrina is making the news and is headed straight towards New Orleans. His parents want to evacuate, but Saint can't find Shadow anywhere and he knows that he just can't leave without him.

With the storm waters rising, and time running out, Saint finds himself boarded up in an old cottage with his elderly neighbor and (finally) Shadow. Together they'll ride out the storm, for better or worse.

What Worked: Woods invokes the feeling of New Orleans really well with her descriptions of local music and food. While reading Saint... I found myself wanting to rewatch the HBO series Treme just to continue my immersion in the New Orleans world. Saint is a strong protagonist, very much caught up in his own world, and his choices always follow a certain logic even if they're not the best in terms of self-preservation. The interactions between MonaLisa, Saint and the other friend-- a girl named Jupi-- are cute and provide some much needed relief from the excellent building tension.

What Didn't Work: While I thought the build-up of tension before the storm was one of the books stronger attributes, Katrina itself fell flat. I didn't feel any real immediacy or danger while Saint was supposedly fighting for his life, for Miz Moran's life and for Shadow's life. I also wasn't crazy about the addition of magical realism in the third act. If there had been better foreshadowing, maybe, but as it was it popped up out of nowhere and took me out of the story.

Would I read it again?: Probably not. I don't regret reading it, but I think Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes covered the same material and covered it better.

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