For some of us, it’s hard to believe it’s been almost 11 years since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the gulf coast, rupturing New Orleans’ fragile levee system, leaving most of the city underwater, and killing almost two thousand people. By any measure, it was a huge event. But within the catastrophe were thousands of small stories. People searching for a meal, or medical care. People waiting for transportation out of New Orleans. People who wanted to let family members know they survived the storm. Newberry Honor author Rodman Philbrick successfully crafts such a small, personal story in his novel Zane and the Hurricane.
Twelve-year old Zane Dupree lives in New Hampshire with his single mother and faithful dog, Bandy. Zane’s father died in an auto accident before Zane was born, and the family has no association or knowledge of his relatives. However, Zane’s mother has recently located Zane’s great-grandmother “Miss Trissy” who lives in New Orleans. Reluctantly, Zane agrees to fly to New Orleans to spend some time with Miss Trissy, with Bandy along to keep him company. Unfortunately, Zane’s trip to the Crescent City coincides with Hurricane Katrina.
Miss Trissy lives in the Lower Ninth Ward, and her culture is classic New Orleans. (Zane is bi-racial, and has been exposed only to his mother’s European-American culture in New Hampshire.) Within a few days, Zane has acquired an interest in his African-American/New Orleans heritage, curiosity about his father’s upbringing, and a genuine love for his great-grandmother.
And then, hurricane Katrina – reinvigorated by the warm gulf waters – takes a sharp turn north and heads straight for New Orleans. Miss Trissy, Zane, and Bandy secure seats on a church bus for the snails-pace evacuation. But the nervous canine hops out the bus window, and Zane follows the dog on foot down the highway. The chase ends back at Miss Trissy’s house, where Zane and Bandy have no choice but to ride-out the storm. After the storm, Zane and Bandy are rescued from the attic by an injured jazz musician and a young girl paddling a canoe through the tepid, foul waters of post-Katrina New Orleans. Zane and the Hurricane tells their struggle to find food, water, and shelter while moving across the decimated city.
It’s a small story, told with grace and sensitivity. There’s a menacing street thug, and a tension-filled run-in with a private security force, but the real antagonist is the flooded city itself. There are episodes of great compassion and abject cruelty. There’s clarity and confusion. There’s hope, followed by crashing dejection. In other words, it’s humanity on display. Our main characters – exquisitely developed – react and grow in the impossible surroundings.
If you’re looking for a book to teach figurative language – especially simile and metaphor – this is it. Here’s a quick example.
"We glide away from what’s left of Grammy’s house and into another world, or so it seems. A world of rooftops poking above the flood like little black islands, and trees clawing up through the water like the gnarled hands of the drowned. A world where the water and the sky melt together, until you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends."
I could teach that all week! You could too. There are dozens of such passages in the book.
Catastrophe stories are popular with tween readers, and Zane and the Hurricane certainly fits that bill. Thoughtful readers who can empathize with the human side of tragedy will appreciate the book even more. Buy at least a couple of copies for your library media center, and include it in your upper elementary and middle school classroom library. And language arts teachers – you have a true gem for teaching descriptive passages and figurative language.