There are probably thousands -- make that hundreds of thousands -- of stories that could be told of the effect of Hurricane Katrina on individual lives. Many of these stories would tell of loss and tragedy, as well as courage and faith to rebuild broken homes and lives. Much could be gained from hearing any of these stories, but author and human rights' advocate Dave Eggers recognized one particular story that needed to be told because it had something to say about who and what America is -- both at its best and at its worst.
This is the story of the Zeitoun family: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant married to a woman from Baton Rouge, their four children, all of them practicing Muslims. They are well respected in their community of New Orleans and run a successful painting and contracting business. What happened to them during the infamous hurricane and in the months after makes such an amazingly harrowing story that it wouldn't be believed if it weren't true.
In the beginning of the book the reader sees the family's daily lives, which display a wholesome normalcy:
"Kathy made lunches while the three girls sat at the kitchen table, eating and reciting, in English accents, scenes from 'Pride and Prejudice.' They had gotten lost in, were hopelessly in love with that movie. Dark-eyed Nademah had heard about it from friends, convinced Kathy to buy the DVD, and since then the three girls had seen it a dozen times -- every night for two weeks."
As the family listens to reports of the coming storm and debates whether or not to flee, the reader watches with a growing sense of dread, knowing what the characters do not yet comprehend of the coming disaster. Finally Kathy and the children evacuate to higher ground, while the husband, referred to by his last name, Zeitoun, stays behind to look after their properties.
After the storm hits and the waters rise, Zeitoun explores his city in a canoe, giving the reader an insiders' perspective (and that of a painting and construction contractor no less) of what had become of New Orleans. Again, there could be a million different dramatic moments and powerful images here, and Eggers chooses wisely. He describes the scene as Zeitoun and other holdouts watch a fire burning in the city:
"Other than the crackle of the fire and the occasional collapsing wall or floor, the night was quiet. There were no sirens, no authorities of any kind. Just a block of homes burning and sinking into the obsidian sea that had swallowed the city."
Later we see the disturbing government response. As Zeitoun tries to rescue people he goes to the National Guardsmen for help -- but is refused. He is informed by the soldiers that they can do nothing and they direct him to another base.
"Did the soldier really mean that Zeitoun should paddle all the way to the intersection of Napoleon and St. Charles when the soldier could simply call another unit on his walkie-talkie? What were they doing in the city, if not helping evacuate people?
"'We can't call nobody, ' the other soldier said.
"'How come?' Zeitoun asked. 'With all this technology, you can't call someone? '
"Now the soldier, only a few years older than Zeitoun's son Zachary, seemed afraid. He had no answer, and seemed unsure of what to do next. Finally he turned and walked away. The remaining soldiers stared at Zeitoun, holding their M-16s.
"Zeitoun turned his canoe around."
As the days go by Zeitoun watches as the waters turn from clear, to cloudy and oily, to putrid. Similarly his own situation goes from bad to worse to nightmarish. Here is where the narrative most powerfully becomes a mirror for the controversies in America in the age since 9/11 and the declaration of the war on terrorism.
Into this already dramatic narrative Eggers interweaves stories of Zeitoun's childhood and family back in Syria. By showing us these memories, and Zeitoun's practice of his faith, we get a full picture of who this man really is: as a Muslim, as a brother, as a husband and father, as a homeowner and a businessman, as an Arab in America. Eggers is the perfect person to tell this story, writing in clean, skillful prose that neither over- nor under-states the events he has so meticulously researched.
At the end the reader is likely to indentify with Kathy's sentiments as she still struggles to process what they went through: "Did all that really happen? Did it happen in the United States? To us? It could have been avoided, she thinks."
This is a book to be read by immigrants, by politicians of all stripes, by high school civics classes across the nation and by anyone seeking to better understand these United States of America.