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Michigan Bookmark: In “NOLA Gals” social barriers threaten a friendship after Hurricane Katrina

Transcription of the book review: NOLA Gals by Barbara Rebbeck, published in 2015, honored the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and received five major awards in Young Adults categories. This year Rebbeck wrote a play for young people called Turbulence. It was based on her own novel.

NOLA Gals, the novel, is about strong-hearted and vulnerable Essence, a black girl whose family is caught in the throes of Katrina. Essence leaves her home, her mother and grandmother, and the family’s beloved dog, Old George, as the waters crest in the ninth ward.  Essence and her little sister are handed off to rescuers while the others wait or scatter or worse.  Frantic and frightened about her family, Essence still manages to care for her sister as they make their way first to the Superdome where conditions further traumatize them, then on to Houston’s Astrodome, where they join a handful of refugees and form a rough community in the bleachers. 

Meanwhile, strong-hearted and selfish Grace, on suspension from her expensive private school, is taken by her psychiatrist father to the Texas Astrodome to hand out water.  With her she carries a school journal and her reading homework, To Kill a Mockingbird.  She has little intention of helping refugees, but when she encounters the cluster of people in Row G, she finds herself reading to them from To Kill a Mockingbird. The device of a book within the book is a sophisticated literary turn that helps frame issues and develop deeper themes.  

In NOLA Gals, Rebbeck adeptly describes the different reactions the white suburban girl and the black girl from New Orleans have to this pivotal book.  Of course, their paths cross again until at last, Essence and her sister come to live for a time with Grace’s family.  This move could abound with the clichés of false charity and white-girl-rescues-black-sister themes, but Rebbeck is more realistic.  While the girls do like each other, the transition is not easy.  And Rebbeck maintains the integrity of both girls without trapping them in predictable niceties.  However, when Essence enters Grace’s school, complications multiply.  There, they encounter the bigotry and racial slurs that force Grace and Essence to crisis, and where at last, the two girls do part, but not for the reasons you might expect.  

The book abounds with stylistic variations. For example, before leaving the Astrodome, Grace had given Essence her empty homework journal. Essence uses it.  Thus, the book shifts from third person point of view to Essence’s first person journal entries, to Grace’s entries in her own journal.  To further enrich literary texture, Rebbeck includes flood signs, a school essay, a persuasive speech, letters to survivors from strangers, descriptions of lost pets, notes about where people might be found—if you see this sign, tell so and so…. as well as cinematic scenes of the suburban party where adults hatch the plan to oust the NOLA girls and, in a bizarre throwback to the fifties, ban the book, To Kill a Mockingbird. The multi-genre approach allows us to see multiple points of view, and explores how we help (or don’t), who rescues whom, how compassion is executed, and what it means to mature in places of hostility. This makes NOLA Gals a powerful teaching book; not only does it encourage young people to speak openly of racial issues, but is full of models that teachers need.  By the way, the NOLA Gals websitefeatures free resource materials.

NOLA Gals has a positive but complicated ending, an ending that does not answer all questions.  Turns out, not all these folks are all good, but they are good in ways we appreciate and understand in light of the tragedy and injustices of Katrina.  Rebbeck’s serious and refreshing tale is an important one for young readers, and she is executing some fine literary citizenship by encouraging young readers to discover and explore the impact of Hurricane Katrina. If the play version of NOLA Gals holds the same inspiration, our young people’s theaters should be on the lookout for the exciting stage version, Turbulence, in which not one adult character appears. Watch for it.

Anne-Marie Oomen is a memoirist, essayist, poet and playwright. Her most recent book, Love, Sex, and 4-H won the Next Generation Indie Award for Best Memoir, 2016.


Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books. Find more reviews here.


Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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