Ellen Urbani

Forest Avenue Press


“What were they doing?” asked Gertrude.
“What do you mean? What was
who doing?”
“The marchers. What’d they do that caused the police to get involved?”
“Nothing,” Rose said, drawing out each syllable for emphasis. “That’s the point. They weren’t doing anything ‘cept walking cross a bridge.”
“Go on,” Gertrude prodded. “You know they had to be doing something wrong. Police don’t go interfering with people for no reason.”
Rose sucked in a deep breath, cemented her arms across her chest, and snapped, “Not people who look like you and me.”

                                      from  Landfall


Two mothers, two daughters, and a hurricane named Katrina

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana with winds up to 175 mph. Hardest hit was New Orleans, where more than 50 levees broke, resulting in 80 per cent of the city becoming flooded. At least 1,833 people died in the hurricane and its aftermath, with hundreds more missing. The nation sat stunned, watching the indelible images of people helpless, perched on their rooftops as the waters continued to rise around them. Among the three most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history, it was also this country’s costliest natural disaster, estimated at $108 billion.

The late E. L. Doctorow (Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The March) once noted that the historian will tell you what happened; the novelist will tell you what it felt like. Released this month on the tenth anniversary of Katrina, Landfall by Portland author Ellen Urbani tells us what it felt like.

Against the backdrop of this epic disaster she relates the intimate and personal stories of two sets of mothers and their teenage daughters. Cilla and her daughter Rosy are African Americans trapped in the flooded Ninth Ward, the logical extension of being trapped in their poverty and the continuing racism of their society. Gertrude and her daughter Rose, Southern whites, are driving from Alabama to the stricken city, bringing what supplies they can carry for the victims. Very soon their very different worlds will collide.

The stories are told in alternating chapters from Rose and Rosy’s points of view, like two story strands that Fate is weaving together into one narrative braid. Along the way, the intertwining stories are dotted with surprises, like clues leading to a major surprise waiting at the end.

The most harrowing section of the book has Cilla and Rosy, along with their elderly neighbor Maya, trapped in the attic of Maya’s house as the floodwaters are rising through the floor.

“Come on, Maya, pray with me.”
“No. heart. Just hold my hand.”
“Please, Maya, pray with me.”
“I done praying, heart. But you go on if you wanna. I’ma just sit here and listen.”
That’s when she realized Maya wasn’t going to make it.

I stayed up until two in the morning, reading this book. Throughout my entire life there have been very few books that I stayed up for until two in the morning.

Landfall is a powerful, unforgettable novel that makes the terror and heartbreak of Hurricane Katrina personal, telling us what this moment in our recent history felt like.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15-September 14, 2015.) Reprinted with permission.