Natasha Trethewey is a powerful woman, a Pulitzer prize-winning poet and academic who grew up and out of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Her book reflects the varied facets of her character, being a collection of essays, poems, photographs and family stories that together form a portrait of the culture of these warm shore lands. The book is also an effort to draw attention and even investment to a part of the country that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but is often overlooked because of the focus on New Orleans.
As Trethewey paints a picture of the Gulfport of her grandmother's time, and explores the changes for her family over the years, she also interviews friends and neighbors and applies journalistic objectivity to the impacts of old storms and new ones. Looking back to Hurricane Camille, a category 5 storm in August of 1969 that flattened most of the Mississippi coast and killed 259, Trethewey finds that the region's people, including herself and her family, have lived with a sense of vulnerability and a certain fatalism ever since. Going further back, she sees the pattern of development that class and racial segregation created, which her uncle recognized when he returned from World War II. Uncle "Son" worked hard to overcome those barriers, and was able to open a small nightclub that funded his steady acquisition of rental properties in the black neighborhood of North Gulfport. Repairing the run-down places, he provided affordable housing to his community. Trethewey shows us the ripples of such individual action. Yet those rentals were to be her younger brother's inheritance, and their loss to Katrina set him on a desperate path and forced many neighbors out.
A small island offshore, Dog Key was the gambling and gangster center of Gulfport when her Uncle "Son" was building some security, but the island disappeared under water after the 24-foot storm surge of Camille. To keep the gaming offshore, when Gulfport reinvented itself in the 1970s casinos were located on boats and barges. They provided jobs and brought tourist dollars, yet the city struggled to recover. Then Katrina wiped out most of those vessels, and Trethewey discovers the ambivalence of the populace toward the current development of those casinos as on-shore facilities, restricting beach access and small business development, and pricing locals out of the new housing.
There is much social and political information to ponder here. Yet it is the family saga woven through this cultural history that is most compelling. In anecdotes and photos, Trethewey's relatives are real and their places in Gulfport's story bring the town to life for the reader. Her lyrical poems give us yet another view and reveal the author's personal experience and insight in a direct way, with images that linger.
Though the form is sometimes strained by its disparate parts, the several approaches to Gulfport's tragedy and endurance do provide a broader understanding than any simple piece of journalism could do. The people are genuine and their day-to-day reality becomes clear as Trethewey gives them voice. As she meditates on her home place, skipping across the waters of memory and the map of facts, Gulfport becomes a place to love, and a narrative of importance. Once again a storm has altered its story, and Trethewey's work calls for our help and concern as Gulfport begins a new chapter.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her Native Guard collection of poems, Natasha Trethewey earned an M.A. in poetry from Hollins University and M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Massachusetts. She currently is Professor of English and holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University. Other books include Domestic Work and Bellocq's Ophelia. The Emory University faculty website has more information.
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