“You Know This House”: Review of The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

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Reviewed by Meredith Warden 

Sarah Monique Broom’s debut novel The Yellow House is, at first glance, a memoir of her childhood and early adulthood. However, the book offers much more than a chronology of the author’s life. Broom deftly ties together space, memory, and history to interrogate her relationship with the titular Yellow House and the neglected New Orleans East neighborhood in which she grew up. The Yellow House is both a story of familial love replete in the physical space of home and a historical and contemporary study of disinvestment in Black neighborhoods and communities.

The eponymous Yellow House, bought by Broom’s mother after her first husband died, is a central presence in Broom’s life. The youngest child of Ivory Mae and Simon Broom (Ivory Mae’s second husband), Sarah Broom is born into a house that is homey yet falling apart “from the start” (58). Her mother, filling the house with brand-new furniture and carpeting, describes the structure as “beautiful because that was my first house that I actually owned” (59). The Yellow House becomes intertwined with the author’s family as they “grew into all the spaces of the house…the family’s traces everywhere” (77). Broom’s evocative descriptions of these lived-in spaces, of the Yellow House as a character in and of itself, meld seamlessly with the narrative of her family.

 Yet the house is also built on sinking land and, once Simon dies before the author’s first birthday, his absence exposes “the house’s frailties” (110). The room in which he died “folded in on itself,” and so does Broom’s family, retreating to the house’s interiority and prohibiting non-family from seeing the home (99). Broom vividly describes the “slow creeping” of shame warning the family that, in Ivory Mae’s words, “You know this house not all that comfortable for other people” (146). Without her father, the author’s childhood home deteriorates even as her mother tries to maintain it, “its disintegration a straight line always lengthening, ad infinitum” (150). 

Broom artfully intertwines this entropy of the Yellow House with the systemic neglect of her neighborhood, New Orleans East. She details the history of New Orleans East, initially lauded in the 1960s as a “Model City…taking form within an old and glamorous one” that would make New Orleans “the brightest spot in the South” (55). However, by the late 1970s, the neighborhood had changed from mostly white to mostly Black, from investment to disinvestment. One of Broom’s most insightful themes—space—jumps out here. Broom writes that “if the city were concentric circles, the farther out from the French Quarter you went…the less tended to you would be. Those of us living in New Orleans East often felt we were on the outer ring” (301). In the eyes of affluent, white residents and tourists, New Orleans East is marginal, on the edge of New Orlean’s narrative. 

With “the Water,” which is how Broom refers to Hurricane Katrina, this marginalization becomes even starker. The myth of New Orleans “can sometimes suffocate the people who live and suffer under the place’s burden”; the myth does not have room to address “levee failure or lack of clean running water or bus service, trash pickup, mental health services, jobs” (328, 238). The city demolishes the Yellow House after the Water damages it, and this sudden absence deeply affects Broom. In moving prose, she writes that “the house held my father inside of it…as long as the house stood, containing these remnants, my father was not yet gone. And then suddenly, he was” (232). “The weight of us all in the house,” that familial weight, abates as Broom’s family is displaced and scattered (232). Defined by as much as confined to the Yellow House, Broom feels lost without it: “the house had burst open; I had burst open” (240).  

Living in Harlem when the hurricane struck, Broom again experiences the urge to leave, to forget New Orleans, after the Yellow House is destroyed. She goes to Burundi for five months, but, feeling lost and disconnected, she returns to New Orleans and takes a communications job for now-infamous Mayor Ray Nagin. Yet she still feels helpless toward the city, stating that “more and more I began to feel that I was on the wrong side of the fence, selling a recovery that wasn’t exactly happening for real people” (283). Even with Broom’s City Hall job, it takes seven years for her mother to get a reimbursement for the torn-down Yellow House; recovery and repairs are measured “by spoonfuls”; and “more than 100,000 people—one-third of the population—[are] still displaced” (281, 273). Feeling unmoored in the Water’s aftermath, Broom begins to consider the question that will form the genesis and core of The Yellow House: “How to resurrect a house with words?” (292). 

This question grows during the year Broom lives in the French Quarter of New Orleans, as she confirms the fact that “much of what is great and praised about the city comes at the expense of its native black people” (301). Broom begins digging into archival research and writing down her family’s oral histories, doing the work that will form The Yellow House. One of the most powerful sections comes at the end of this year in the French Quarter, where Broom asks, among other questions, “Why do I sometimes feel that I do not have the right to the story of the city I come from?… Who has the rights to the story of a place?” (329). By creating a narrative that centers a place and people marginalized in the story of New Orleans, The Yellow House is Broom’s assertion of this right. If the stories of Broom’s neighborhood seem tangential at times, one must remember that these stories illuminate themes of home and community within a place neglected by those in power. Toward the end of the book, she writes that “no place is without history”; above all, The Yellow House is a striking and poetic demonstration of this fact (331).

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