Nines Lives is a multivoiced biography of a dazzling, surreal, and imperiled city, told through the lives of nine unforgettable characters and bracketed by two epic storms: Hurricane Betsy, which transformed New Orleans in the 1960s, and Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed it. Dan Baum brings this kaleidoscopic portrait to life, showing us what was lost in the storm and what remains to be saved.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, I was riveted to the television. I’d always been a storm lover. The drama and intensity of a thunderstorm held my attention in a way no TV show ever could. Of course I wanted to see this storm. A hurricane was totally out of the realm of my experience. To me, it was simply a massive thunderstorm. In August of 2005, I learned what devastation meant when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
Just as with most historic news events, certain memories are forever engraved in my brain. Images of people laying on roofs, surrounded by impossibly high water, are my immediate recollection. The Superdome, home to the New Orleans Saints, was filled with displaced residents, and the roof was peeled off with horrifying ease. Hearing that the levee had broken was honestly impossible to comprehend to someone who didn’t live there. Even now, five years later, I see pictures and it isn’t real to me. The devastation, the rot and death and heart-breaking permanence does not translate over the media.
This is where Dan Baum‘s book, Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, comes in. Going back to Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Baum introduces us to New Orleans and the ability of her people to bounce back and thrive.
Look at these two hurricane ‘after’ pictures. The first one is from Betsy, the second one from Katrina. Even after this kind of mind-numbing devastation, New Orleans has continued to bounce back.
Baum introduces us to nine unique individuals who are tied, in most cases, by nothing more than their love of New Orleans as their home and heritage.
There is no way for me to do justice to these rich characters. Each is unique in their own way, full of desires, dreams, fears, and loves. Let me introduce each of them, but please excuse my brevity. Dan Baum will take you into their lives. I simply want to give you a taste of the wonderful backbone to his story.
There’s Ronald Lewis, a man full of integrity and strength, who fights to hold on to New Orleans history. He reminds us that there is more to New Orleans than just the French Quarter. He takes you into the history of the Mardi Gras Indians and the Lower Ninth Ward. You can visit his museum called The House of Dance and Feathers.
Anthony Wells brings character and life, as well as respect and love, to the people who stayed with their houses longer than most thought was safe. He brings to light the grittier side of New Orleans culture, with humor and a light-hearted honesty.
Billy Grace comes to us from a different perspective. His hard-working background is intertwined with wealth and privilege. His ability to access some of the most exclusive groups of rich, white men in New Orleans, introduces us to the house of Rex and the social responsibility that goes along with it.
Frank Minyard has a love/hate relationship with his wealth, and works hard to avoid becoming one of the snobbish ‘uptown swells’ his mother so hated. Living a life of excess, he still manages to earn the respect of anyone reading, as he dedicates his life to helping those less fortunate than he had become.
Wilbert Rawlins and Belinda Carr work against their environment and history to reach success and happiness. With Wilbert’s love of the band, and the children he teaches, we get a real glimpse into how very important music is to New Orleans and its residents. Belinda’s ambition rivals that of most people you’ll meet, and her ability to overcome adversity in her life is inspiring.
Timothy Bruneau gives us a rare glimpse into the New Orleans police department. Rather than the corrupt impression often given in the media, we see determination and love of the job in Tim. Even a horribly life-altering accident isn’t enough to stop Tim’s need to work for justice.
My favorite two characters I’ve saved for last.
Joyce Montana was married to one of the most remarkable men in New Orleans history. Allison “Tootie” Montana was a history-maker, full of life, and one of the most hard-working, creative minds that ever lived. Enjoy this glimpse into his life in Nine Lives, and check out some of the following sites to get an even greater in-depth view:
And last, but not least by any stretch, is JoAnn Guidos. Formerly John Guidos, JoAnn worked to overcome adversity and self-doubt by being her true self. Her love and commitment to New Orleans and the misfits who live there led her to open Kajun’s Pub. It was one of the few businesses that remained open during and after Hurricane Katrina. JoAnn let anyone and everyone in to find shelter, company, and a much-needed drink. Her contribution to New Orleans life makes me want to thank her, hug her, and support her in whatever way I can. The best way I can think of doing that is to ask you to visit her restaurant. Enjoy the bar, patronize the businesses down there, and get to know the people. Love them for who they are and know they will do the same for you. That’s just part of New Orleans, and to me, JoAnn personifies that spirit of acceptance and joie de vivre.
Nine Lives will make you feel a full range of emotions, from start to finish. Dan Baum treats us to an inside look at the politics, culture, and racial tensions that make up New Orleans life and history. Most importantly, you will see that the people of New Orleans do not need our pity. They do not need part-time do-gooders, building a house and then leaving. They need our business. They need their culture and their people. They need music, food, and life. But never our pity.
Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans is a book well worth your time. It was well thought out, well written, and it interweaves the lives of nine unique individuals. The delicate web of lives touch each other in some ways and never intersect in others.
If I had to find any fault in this book it would be in the ending. I was disappointed not to have some loose ends tied up. But in the end, isn’t that what life is?
4.5 out of 5 stars