By ANGIE JABINE
It’s been a long time since I’ve had to tear my eyes off a page simply to catch my breath, but Ellen Urbani’s Landfall is that kind of a saga, a potent mixture of dread and elation, confusion and comprehension.
“She focused on forgetting one detail. Every time it came to her, she imagined it gone. Never-occurred. She pictured a mendacious sequence of events. She imagined Willie reaching for the roof, never securing a grip, his hands slipping off because of the damp, the mold, the slippery slick on his skin. If his survivors found her one day and asked, she would speak of those last moments when he slid peacefully below the waters, spent on the effort of saving himself, and the way he’d looked so accepting, almost smiling, as he vanished. Or maybe she’d say he died saving her mother. That’s it! He died saving her mother…”
Published by Portland’s Forest Avenue Press, Landfall makes its debut on August 29, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and it’s rolling in on a tide of impressive advance notices. Fannie Flagg compares it to Isabel Allende’s “House of the Spirits and Pat Conroy says some of its passages are “Faulknerian in their powers.” Rightly so.
The story opens on Rose and Gertrude just days after Hurricane Katrina inundated the Gulf Coast. The pair seem like estranged housemates, perhaps even former lovers, but they are in fact a teenage girl and her thirty-seven-year-old single mother. Driving towards New Orleans from their home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to donate emergency supplies, they swerve into a young black woman walking on the shoulder. Gertrude, at the wheel, dies instantly. So does the young woman. Her name is Rosy.
Rosy is Rosebud Howard. Her home is New Orleans. Her mother, Cilla, grew up in foster homes in Tuscaloosa but moved to New Orleans as a pregnant teenager after her boyfriend’s suicide. A single mother living in a shotgun shack in the Ninth Ward, Cilla is all but inseparable from her daughter. The whole neighborhood looks out for them, and in many ways it’s an idyllic childhood, except that Cilla is bipolar. Rosy grows up quickly as she learns how to manage her mother’s infrequent but catastrophic outbursts.
Days after Gertrude’s funeral, Rose pays a visit to the Tuscaloosa Police Department. She wants to see the personal effects of the young woman her mother had crashed into. A sympathetic detective hands them over—a page from a Tuscaloosa telephone book, a restaurant receipt, a florist’s business card. The detective knows only the dead girl’s name, Rosebud Howard, but he gives Rose the name of an ER nurse who treated Rosy in Natchez, Mississippi. Feeling a strange affinity for Rosy, and feeling that Rosy’s family deserves to know what happened, Rose goes looking for them.
Landfall is intricately structured, a Celtic knot of a narrative. From the chaos at New Orleans’s Superdome, where Rosy’s mother breaks a policeman’s jaw, we walk and hitchhike with Rosy towards Tuscaloosa by way of Gretna and Alexandria, looking for family members who can help get her mother out of police custody and into a hospital. After the fatal accident, Rose retraces Rosy’s journey in reverse, from Natchez to Gretna and Alexandria, where she—and the reader—finally realize exactly what she and Rosy have in common.
Urbani says that’s precisely the way she planned it. She wrote Landfall during a major upheaval in her own life. Newly divorced with two children under age two, she had left a career in healthcare—she counseled trauma victims—to focus on her writing. With a published memoir already under her belt (When I Was Elena, 2006), she wanted to write a novel, one with a twist.
“I needed my brain stimulated because I was all babies, all the time, reading Goodnight Moon and Dr. Seuss,” she told me in a Southeast Portland coffeeshop. “I wanted to write a meaty literary work with a big twist, and one that I hoped no one could see coming, where…this moment happens and you realize you’ve got to go back and rethink everything you’d perceived before. It was all slightly wrong. Correct and wrong at the same time.”
And she wanted that misapprehension to arise out of readers’ own prejudices. Hopefully, she says, “they will have that moral confrontation with themselves when it dawns on them what’s going on.”
The alternating narratives both jump from present to past and back, Rosy and Rose each revisiting their mothers’ shortcomings in excruciating detail, as daughters are wont to do. The missing fathers are sketchier, with Rose’s practically a chalk outline, while Rosy has molded hers into a protector so ideal he could only be a myth. That theme, the tendency to idealize the absent father, also arose out of Urbani’s own experience (albeit a comparatively brief one) as a single mother.
It may seem strange that a Philadelphia-born, Virginia-raised writer living in Oregon would take on such a manifestly Southern story, but Urbani earned her BA at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, home of the Crimson Tide football dynasty. She also belonged to a sorority there, an experience she cherished. She loved the Deep South and still does. “When I say I belong in the South, I really do,” she said. “I love the warmth, the hospitality, the graciousness, the sense of community. But I can’t live in the South because of the racial climate that still exists. It is so antithetical to everything I believe that I can’t live there, and I can’t raise my children there.”
She also feels that her background in healthcare gave her some invaluable insight into what the flood victims went through. “My specialty was, I was with people when they got horrible diagnoses. I was with children and told them their parents were dying. I’ve spent a lot of my career working with people at the most traumatic moment of their lives. And what you realize is, for a person experiencing trauma, everything is collapsing. In trauma, everything is trauma.”
If one terrible thing has happened, even worse things are right around the corner. This, she feels, is largely what accounted for the exaggerated initial reports of anarchy within the Superdome, where the flood evacuees were taken. “It’s not like a news reporter stood in front of the Superdome and made something up,” she notes. “It was the victims themselves who initiated all those exaggerations.” A lot of those initial reports—tales of knifings, pillaging, rape—were never actually substantiated, and yet they linger in the public imagination, she says. And you can see where Landfall plays with those impressions to misdirect the reader.
Urbani finished writing Landfall in 2008, but for six years the manuscript languished in a folder. She was simply too busy raising children, teaching, finding a new love, getting married again, buying 43 acres of farmland outside Portland, and building a house. It wasn’t until a year ago, when Laura Stanfill, the publisher of Portland’s Forest Avenue Press, put out an open call for manuscripts, that she decided to submit hers. But she never imagined Stanfill would buy it. “I was just expecting—this is what you do,” Urbani recalls. “You have to submit to 50 places so that it finally finds a home. It never occurred to me that the first place I submitted it to would want it.”
Stanfill agreed to take the book on the condition that Urbani do some dialing back on a crucial rape scene (it still remains excruciating). Urbani agreed to sell the book to Stanfill on the condition that she find a national book distributor. Within a month, Forest Avenue had signed on with Legato Publishers Group, a division of the national Perseus Group. Together, author and publisher worked double-time to get the book out by the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
“This publisher,” says Urbani, “has worked harder to promote my book than anyone has ever worked for me in my entire life. And you know what, I’m not some big established author either. I’m an upstart. We’re in the same boat, she and I. We both had a significant investment, a reason, to make this work for each other.” Landfall is going to work for a lot more people than just the author and her publisher.
Ellen Urbani reads from Landfall at 4 pm Saturday, August 29, at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 West Burnside.
Angie Jabine is a Portland-based editor and writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. This is her first post on Oregon ArtsWatch.