Sunday, August 27, 2017

Joanne O'Sullivan revisits Katrina in heart-wrenching young adult novel, 'Between Two Skies'

Evangeline Riley is quite happy living at the bottom of the world, in a small fishing village known as Bayou Perdu in Plaquemines Parish. Even though she’s chosen by default to reign as Fleet Queen during the annual blessing of the shrimp fleet, Evangeline wears jeans and white rubber boots. She is, after all, the daughter of a shrimp fisherman and loves every minute of it.

Joanne O’Sullivan opens her young adult tale “Between Two Skies” with Evangeline happy in her native habitat — even though she also wears a shrimp tiara for the festival. It’s this juxtaposition of her love of nature versus modern expectations that will resonate throughout the book when Hurricane Katrina destroys Bayou Perdu and sends Evangeline and her family to Atlanta. After the family evacuates and realizes that returning home is a long-term option, they head to Georgia where Evangeline’s aunt resides. The Riley family acquire through a family member furnished housing, receive charity for clothes and start school at one of Atlanta’s best high schools. But it’s heart-breaking for all. Without his livelihood, the father falls into a depression, Mandy has difficulty making the cheerleading squad and Evangeline floats rudderless through each day. Her saving grace happens when she meets another evacuee, a boy whose blues resonates in her soul and helps her to rebound.

“Between Two Skies” is the perfect read for this time of year, when the Katrina anniversary looms and we’re reminded of how life as we know it in Louisiana can be easily washed away. It reminds us of the precious commodity we call home, both physically and with the people we love. O’Sullivan’s lyrical writing paints this story with a delicate brush. I suddenly was back in 2005, experiencing that anguish through the sweet, tender heart of a 16-year-old missing the bayous and Gulf waters of her South Louisiana home.
 
L-R: Clara Martin, Kristen L. Gray. Cassie Beasley, Kimberly Willis Holt, Alison McGhee

Mississippi Book Festival
Last week I had the pleasure of attending the annual Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson where I heard several outstanding female authors speak, all at the gorgeous and historic Mississippi State Capitol. Two panels stood out for me, one on middle grade authors and another emphasizing the female story, both encouraging to both readers and writers.

Several middle grade authors, including Kimberly Willis Holt who has ties to Louisiana, spoke of how books at a young age allowed them to experiment and envision who they wanted to be. Alison McGhee, author of “Pablo and Birdy,” said she felt empowered reading at age 10. Holt chose the genre because it represents a time when “anything is possible.”

“Middle grade readers are so enthusiastic about books,” said Cassie Beasley, author of “Tumble and Blue,” where an alligator narrates the story. “I feel there is no such thing as a reluctant reader. They just haven’t found the right book.”

Holt credits teachers for putting her on the path to publishing, after a friend and two teachers complimented her on her creative writing in middle school. “I went to school thinking I couldn’t be a writer and I went home thinking I could be a writer,” Holt said. “And it was all because of those three people.”
           
In the panel, “Her Story,” four outstanding women spoke of their road to publishing, its challenges and successes. “Write your story,” said Mary Ann Connell, long-time Mississippi lawyer, professor and author of the memoir, “An Unforeseen Life.” “Take pictures. Record your stories. You can do whatever you want to do regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, if you work at it.” Other “Her Story” authors included Jessica B. Harris, a ground-breaking African American author of 12 cookbooks; Suzanne Marrs, a Welty Foundation scholar-in-residence at Millsaps College and author of “Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald;” Norma Watkins, author of the memoir “That Woman from Mississippi;” and Susan Cushman, author of “Cherry Bomb.”
 
National Book Fest
Ernest Gaines will launch his new book, “The Tragedy of Brady Sims,” and New Orleans’ Jesmyn Ward will launch, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Saturday at the 2017 Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. The event marks the festival’s 17th anniversary, with more than 100 authors on 10 different stages. For information, visit  loc.gov/bookfest/
                  
New releases
David Cappello, a business writer who lives in New Orleans, will discuss his new book, “The People’s Grocer: John G. Schwegmann, New Orleans, and the Making of the Modern Retail Worlds” at 7 p.m. Thursday at the East Bank Regional Library in Metairie. The book is a business-based biography of Schwegmann, founder of a New Orleans’ supermarket chain. His 1951 Supreme Court victory over “fair trade” laws played a key role in legalizing discount pricing. Cappello is a business writer, musician, poet and playwright in New Orleans.

Award-winning author Linda Joyce of Louisiana has a new book out and it’s only 99 cents to download until Thursday. “Her Heart’s Desire” centers around Lia, who has loved Lucas for years, unbeknownst to him. Lucas loves Lia as well, and thoughts of her have kept Lucas alive while fighting overseas. But she’s the sister of his best friend, and when he returns home he’s promised to keep the wrong kind of guys away from her. Family, Mother Nature, and the bank are standing in the way of their happily-ever-after. But will their love have a chance to bloom?

Book events
Price Ainsworth discusses and signs his novel partially set in New Orleans, “A Minor Fall,” at 2 p.m. today at the Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans.
 
The Jeanerette Museum presents writer and roots music scholar Todd Mouton in a music history talk at 6 p.m. Wednesday at 500 E. Main St., Jeanerette. Mouton will give a multimedia presentation and discussion of the zydeco musician Clifton Chenier and the many musicians he influenced. Mouton is the author of “Way Down in Louisiana: Clifton Chenier, Cajun, Zydeco, and Swamp Pop Music.” This free talk is suitable for an adult audience, seating may be limited and taken on a first come, first serve basis and a book signing will follow.  For more information, visit www.jeanerettemuseum.com or email jeanerettemuseum@yahoo.com.

“The 10 Secrets of E-book Self-Publishing Success” by author Deborah LeBlanc and members of the Writers Guild of Acadiana from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday in the large meeting room at South Regional Library in Lafayette. There will be a one-hour lunch break at midpoint of the workshop.

Cheré Coen is the author of the “Viola Valentine” Louisiana paranormal mystery series under the pen name of Cherie Claire. Write her at cherecoen@gmail.com.