Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is a Louisiana Young Readers Choice title for 2017!
The story of Hurricane Katrina captivated the entire world. Captivated not only because the horrors of the situation demanded attention but because New Orleans is a city that enchants; the pain, the undoing of this great city reminded everyone of its beauty and its failings. While in Florence, Italy in 2008 (three years after Katrina's blast through the city) John and I saw a "RENEW NEW ORLEANS" sticker plastered on the register in a tiny restaurant. New Orleans is a city that captivates, and while this storm certainly used all of its might to diminish the city it only served to draw more attention to it.
I have read quite a few novels and memoirs of Katrina and its aftermath. This has become a genre to itself; a way for people to heal through story (both for writers and readers). The stories we tell draw us closer, educate us, and remind us of home. It is my hope that the books written about Hurricane Katrina will serve us in another way as well...they will remind us of the colossal mismanagement of this disaster and keep it from happening ever again.
Julie Lamana's Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is a novel of Hurricane Katrina. Lamana guides us through that fateful week in August of 2005 by telling the story through the eyes of Armani Curtis, a young girl from the Ninth Ward. Armani is precocious and as a reader I enjoyed being in her head in the early parts of the novel as she fusses about her siblings and prepares for her tenth birthday party. There is a great sense of family within this novel. What may be the greatest trouble with historical novels (or possibly their greatest triumph) is that it is difficult to read about likable characters knowing what will soon come to pass. At times, I wanted to crawl inside the novel and warn everyone of what was coming, but I know I would have been seen as nothing more than a crazy Cassandra.
One of the many reasons this novel is an important one is just that; people were warned that this may be “the big one” and some people did get out of the city in time. Many of the characters had lived (and stayed in the city) through both Betsy and Camille. We’ve all heard that “this is the big one” and we always manage. It’s the southern way – hurricane parties and so forth. This storm was different though, and the fear of it was electric. Lamana writes of the failed evacuation and those that flocked to the Superdome, but the Curtis family waits the storm out in their home as they always have before.
The scenes of the storm raging ring true. Julie Lamana is from Greenwell Springs; she witnessed the storm first hand, and while it was not quite as horrific for those of us here in Baton Rouge (especially after the break in the levees) it was definitely still a frightfully dangerous storm. Armani describes her family’s fears saying, “Even with Memaw and the kids all up in the bedroom, I could hear them crying and screaming and begging Mama to make it stop…More lightning and more thunder. The constant sound of rain dumping down in buckets so hard it sounded like we might as well’ve been standing up under a waterfall…Daddy looked straight up at the ceiling, and squeezed his eyes shut. In a whisper-cry he said, ‘Protect us, sweet Jesus.’ A tree branch crashed through the big window and knocked Daddy to the floor.” And shortly thereafter the water comes.
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is a horror story, and while it is written for a middle grade audience Lamana does not pull any punches. There is pain and loss in abundance, but a novel about Hurricane Katrina without pain and loss would be entirely dishonest. This novel aims to expose its young readers to many truths about not only this catastrophic event but this moment in time. Within its pages young readers are exposed to different types of families and many people often ignored by society. Time and again Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere manages to be more than just a novel about a certain time and place but also a novel about poverty, race, and family. Readers learn both with and through Armani about empathy and opening up to trust one another. They learn about growing up (in this and so many instances way too fast). Ultimately, readers of Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere learn about hope. Hope doesn’t die in tragedy; that’s when if flourishes.
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is probably best for an audience of 10 and older and I would love to see it read it middle and high schools across the country. There is so much to be gleaned from discussion of this novel, and that includes adult book clubs as well. While the main character may only be ten years old, Lamana has endowed her with a depth of feeling that will resonate with readers of all ages. This is a novel that will offer different gifts to each of its readers; it is not easy to read but you will come away from it happy with what you have discovered.
I feel like it is important for me to note that I know Julie Lamana, and I think she is lovely. However, that has little bearing on what I felt about her book beyond the fact that I am proud to know the author of such a fine work.
Armani Curtis can think about only one thing: her tenth birthday. All her friends are coming to her party, her mama is making a big cake, and she has a good feeling about a certain wrapped box. Turning ten is a big deal to Armani. It means she's older, wiser, more responsible.