Nine Lives

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2/16/2010
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

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The hidden history of a haunted and beloved city told through the intersecting lives of nine remarkable characters. After Hurricane Katrina, Dan Baum moved to New Orleans to write about the city's response to the disaster for The New Yorker. He quickly realized that Katrina was not the most interesting thing about New Orleans, not by a long shot. The most interesting question, which struck him as he watched residents struggling to return, was this: Why are New Orleanians, along with people from all over the world who continue to flock there, so devoted to a place that was, even before the storm, the most corrupt, impoverished, and violent corner of America? Here's the answer. Nine Lives is a multivoiced biography of this dazzling, surreal, and imperiled city through the lives of nine characters over forty years and bracketed by two epic storms: Hurricane Betsy, which transformed the city in the 1960's, and Katrina, which nearly destroyed it. These nine lives are windows into every strata of one of the most complex and fascinating cities in the world. From outsider artists and Mardi Gras Kings to jazz-playing coroners and transsexual barkeeps, these lives are possible only in New Orleans, but the city that nurtures them is also, from the beginning, a city haunted by the possibility of disaster. All their stories converge in the storm, where some characters rise to acts of heroism and others sink to the bottom. But it is New Orleans herself, perpetually whistling past the grave yard, that is the story's real heroine. Nine Lives is narrated from the points of view of some of New Orleans's most charismatic characters, but underpinning the voices of the city is an extraordinary feat of reporting that allows Baum to bring this kaleidoscopic portrait to life with brilliant color and crystalline detail. Readers will find themselves wrapped up in each of these individual dramas and delightfully immersed in the life of one of this country's last unique places, even as its ultimate devastation looms ever closer. By resurrecting this beautiful and tragic place and portraying the extraordinary lives that could have taken root only there, Nine Lives shows us what was lost in the storm and what remains to be saved. Dan Baum is a former staff writer for The New Yorker, and has written for numerous other magazines and newspapers. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Author Biography

DAN BAUM is a former staff writer for The New Yorker, and has written for numerous other magazines and newspapers. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

From the Hardcover edition.


Ronald Lewis

deslonde street

Ronald Lewis walked past one ruined cottage after another. Miss Hattie Guste's yellow bungalow with the gingerbread trim wore mildew like a three day stubble on a drunk man's chin. The Moseses' place seemed to have been dredged in slime like a piece of useless garbage. Miss Odette's immaculate cottage had become a spooky old hollowed-out skull. Miss Pie's swaybacked shotgun was knocked clean off its bricks so that the porch seemed to be kneeling in the mud. These were Ronald's sacred places, he now realized; he'd been in and out of these houses his whole life. Desecrated they were. Thoughtlessly trashed.

Ronald had seen bad luck before. Houses caught fire, men lost their jobs, children drowned in the canal. Each time, neighbors had given the stricken a bed for the night or a few dollars' help, offering strong backs and consolation. This time, though, bad luck had carried its bucket of bitterness through every house on every block, ladling an equal dose to all. How was anybody to rise out of it, with nobody left unhurt to lend a hand?

Ronald Lewis was fourteen years old, and he'd finally encountered a force of nature more powerful than his mom.

Rebecca Wright was born on the Abbey Sugar Plantation in Thibodaux half a century after emancipation, but not so you'd know the difference. She came up in one of dozens of identical unpainted shacks alongside a cane field, carrying water on her head from a communal pump and listening to her uncles being beaten for the crime of being too sick to work. She had her first baby, Walter, at thirteen, put him on her hip, and lit out for New Orleans. There, she married a quiet man named Irvin Dickerson and had four more children.

When Ronald was born to Rebecca's troubled niece Stella Mae in 1951, Rebecca took him, swaddled in a Charity Hospital blanket, and folded him in with her own born five, becoming the only mama he would ever know. She took him down to the tidy house Irvin had built her, across the canal in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Life across the canal was heaven for newcomers from the country. The lots were jungly—big enough for chickens, pigs, and even horses. The streets were made of rolled pea gravel and crushed oyster shell: easy on bare feet. Neighbors understood each other. You took care of your family, sat on your porch in the evening, and went to church. No need for all that parading in the street like the city people and the Creoles on the other side of the canal. None of that fancy dressing up and drinking until all hours. It was the best of both worlds for Rebecca—a quiet country life right there by the good waterfront jobs. Irvin worked close by in the sugar factory. When a banana boat was in, the whole neighborhood smelled sweet, and it was bananas in the bread pudding, banana cream pies, and fried bananas for breakfast all week long.

By the time Ronald came, big brother Walter was off at sea with the merchant marine, but the compact house on Deslonde Street was still plenty crowded. Ronald shared a room with Irvin Junior and Larry; Dorothy and Stella shared one down the hall. When they got around the kitchen table every evening, it was all shoulders and elbows. They ate eggplants, corn, and tomatoes from the garden, and eggs from their chickens. Mama bought flour, rice, and grits by the twenty-five-pound bag and, for breakfast, baked biscuits this high before everybody got up; they'd sop them in cane syrup poured from big cans. Dorothy, thirteen years older than Ronald, had a good job by Lopinto's Restaurant and brought home sacks of fishbacks that still had plenty meat on them. The family would crowd into the kitchen late at night, rolling the fishbacks in cornmeal, frying them crisp, and sucking off the flaky white meat, while Mahalia Jackson sang from the radio.

Cousins showed up often from Thibodaux, looking for a better life in the city. Ronald knew t

Excerpted from Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans by Dan Baum
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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Customer Reviews

Simply Outstanding August 11, 2011
From an outstanding writer come nine outstanding stories about a beautiful and tragic city. Superbly written, insightful, and touching, Nine Lives really brings you into the heart and soul of New Orleans. This is an outstanding textbook!
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Nine Lives: 5 out of 5 stars based on 1 user reviews.

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