May 25, 2017 by femvestige
Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Life, and Death in New Orleans by Dan Baum is fascinating because it is a nonfiction biography following nine very different people from different facets of New Orleans spanning over 50 years. What makes it thoroughly enjoyable is that it reads like a fictional story. I had to stop after the first few chapters to read the back just to make sure it was not a fictional story.
Each chapter comes from the perspective of a different character – most perspectives come from a close 3rd person point of view, however, one character comes from a 1st person point of view.
The biography begins in 1965 when Hurricane Betsy hits New Orleans, specifically devastating areas like the 9th ward. In case you are confused as I was, New Orleans is broken up into 17 different wards, the 9th being the largest. From the 19th to the early 20th century, the wards were used as a political system for elections, and each ward had an elected representative official. This stopped in 1912, however, wards are still used and often a personal identifier for those living within the wards.
Our nine people are as follows:
Billy Grace – former King of Carnival and Captain of the Rex Krewe
Joyce Montana – widow of Tootie Montana, famous Mardis Gras Indian
Ronald Lewis – civil rights activist and owner of Museum of Dance and Feathers
Frank Minyard – jazz enthusiast and New Orleans Parish Coroner
Anthony Wells – ‘jailbird’ from The Goose
Tim Bruneau – New Orleans Policeman
John (JoAnn) Guidos – Transsexual and Kajun’s Pub owner
Belinda Carr – Lower Ninth ward resident with big dreams
Wilbert Rawlins Jr. – band director with much influence
What makes this book special is that we grow up with these people and become invested in their lives. We see Tootie Montana through his wife’s eyes at the beginning of what was still a blood bath tradition. We see the civil rights through a black panther’s fire. We fall in love with Wilbert’s father and we desperately wish with Belinda that she can get out of the lower Ninth and make something of herself. We feel John’s pain as he struggles in a strictly catholic home/school with who he truly is. I was completely taken in with every person as I learned about racism, corrupt politics, wealth in uptown New Orleans and poverty, drugs, and crime in downtown New Orleans.
The landscape shifts seamlessly between narrators as we really get a full picture of a vibrant and complex society. Mardis Gras – a New Orleans staple – is our common denominator amongst the full cast of people. We learn about the rich history of both the private clubs and societies and the violent but honorable tradition of Mardis Gras Indians.
I learned so much from this book, and it was truly fascinating to look up each of the characters at the end of the book and see where they are in life now. So many varying perspectives, it was an enriching experience that has inspired me to want to learn more about New Orleans and not just the tourist pamphlet that our country seems to stamp on the city.
Things I Loved:
The changing perspectives and how detailed each story was made me feel like I was each individual I was reading. I truly enjoyed experiencing the emotions of the characters, be that Pain, Sorrow, Suffering, Joy, Exhilaration, Pride, etc.d
Things I Didn’t Like:
The characters I invested in the least:
Anthony Wells – his first person narration with a serious drawl and a repetitive nature was irritating. I felt it took away from the story he was trying to tell. It was interesting, but it was a detraction above all else.
Tim Bruneau – Tim’s subtle racism and conversation with a dead black woman in the midst of Katrina aftermath just didn’t do it for me.
Billy Grace – There was nothing for me to connect with during a Billy perspective chapter. I did not have any love or interest in the private clubs and was bored as I listened to it.
I think Dan Baum created something special here with these people who donated their life stories to create a beautiful and complex portrait of a city. It was lovely to read.
Rating out of 5: ✮✮✮✮✮
Genre: Nonfiction Biography
Dates Read: 05/01/2017 – 05/10/2017
Best Feature: Changing perspectives, reads like fiction
Worst Feature: Some ‘characters’ lacked depth for connection