For obvious reasons, I am both drawn to and repelled by novels about hurricanes, especially those about Katrina. I could barely get through chapter one of James Lee Burke's TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN. I first cracked the spine while sneaking a cigarette break during lunch while teaching on the campus of Skidmore College a couple of summers ago. And my response to the first few pages was bodily, visceral, and dramatic. Self-preservation made me close the book before I got through more than two or three pages; I knew if I kept reading, I wouldn't be able to go back to my class full of fourteen and fifteen year olds and roll onward with Hamlet.
And my response late last year to CATEGORY FIVE by TJ McGregor was: "This book was published in 2005, before Hurricane Katrina, and it is so prescient that at times it made this Katrina survivor's knees get weak."
But with UNNATURAL HISTORY, here we have a book explicitly dealing with Katrina, and... nothing. Really.
My first reaction to this book was to think that the Katrina sections felt forced. They are the "present day" of the book during which the protagonist, Louis, waits for Katrina to hit and reflects upon the 1927 Mississippi River flood/levee blasting, the locus of the main plot of the novel. The Katrina sections bookend the 1927 plotline; like in the recent movie, Benjamin Buttons, these moments felt like an afterthought-- dry and emotionless (clearly F.Scott Fitzgerald did not address a coming hurricane in his short story from which Buttons takes its inspiration). Anyone who lived in any proximity to the Katrina landfall knows that those moments before the storm struck were anything but emotionless.
My instincts may have been right about these sections. According to a review from the Washington Post: "When Katrina struck Louisiana in 2005, Elise Blackwell was deep into a novel about the flood that struck Louisiana in 1927. 'This still spooks me,' she says, and that uncanny repetition of disaster forced her to revise what she'd written."
(nb. I am not criticizing the idea of revising a work in process to reflect a current event; I tried to include Katrina in the work that I had in progress-- it's a slog, and I don't know if it will work. But you have to be honest to the event, give it some time to shift around and find its proper level. Note that the uberprolific Dean Koontz has taken more than four years to produce the third in his series of modern Frankenstein novels, set in New Orleans. His delay was said to be because he didn't want to unleash any more destruction on New Orleans-- even fictional destruction. But it also took him time to figure out how to handle Katrina. My sense is that Blackwell didn't take enough of that time.)
In 1927, Louis lives in the fictional Cypress Parish, the son of the lumber town's Superintendent-- the most important man in town. As he grows up and watches town politics and the relationships between his father and officials on both a local and a statewide level, Louis begins to understand that his dad is just a small fish. There are other ponds too, as there always have been in renegade rural Louisiana, organized (and disorganized) crime and labor. It's not until Louis gets a job working as a driver for one of those shady characters that he begins to see all these layers of government (I use that term loosely) and how they work.
There's a love story. A lovely story about a local painter. Some Southern Gothic over-the-top tall-tales. But none of those really resonanted with me. My favorite parts of the book were those that described the local flora and fauna and other threats (leprosy!) and were meant to mimic the tone of a Natural History book. Louis, you see, is fond of Pliny.
All-in-all, this book felt flat, emotionless, stagnant. It all felt like Pliny. Not a book about a coming flood, but a book where the waters felt still, indeed.