Oh, the layering in Ellen Urbani’s Landfall. It’s about mothers — origin, inspiration, protection, renewal — and how horribly wrong and right it can go. Of course, it’s about a larger storm, Hurricane Katrina — and about culture, about community and the standards we set and break — but it also speaks of the internal tempest within us all, passed from generations of matriarchs through belief and behavior and expectation.
Urbani’s organization inspires the reader to consume her words in great gulps, taking in Rose’s pragmatism and Rosy’s heart while following their journeys to an unexpected (and I mean — really — unexpected) intersection. At times rapid and mighty, at times quiet and reflective, the narrative balances on excellent character development and the deep emotional insights of the two young women forced askew.
An inhabitant of the Pacific Northwest, I was — of course — aware of the deep devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina ten years ago, but Landfall brought the true, human damage to life in a way so much larger, so much more personal, than the news stories that brought the coverage through our televisions and radios and onto our newspapers during those days and weeks and months. It was, perhaps, the following paragraph which gripped me the most, that revealed a core truth of the devastation, which speaks of Maya, an elderly neighbor who has been like family to Rosy since aiding her arrival into the world, sitting upon a floating chifforobe in the attic of her brick home:
"Below them, in the belly of the chifforobe, her tarnishing silver tinkled as the water lapped at it, bumping the forks and the knives up against the just-shattered china — those plates and saucers her grandmother had put aside a nickel a week to buy, piece by piece, over the course of twenty-two years. Now all was lost, and it paralyzed her. She kept thinking how it would be different were she young: there would be restorative years ahead. But not so when all that is lost is all one will ever have time to collect."
Not only does this speak of the overwhelming devastation for the elderly population of which Maya was a part, but it reveals, too, just how unfathomably able we are to overcome the plights of our youth; to grow and reflect, to move incrementally forward toward what is next until the inertia of life kicks in once again. That the ways in which we act to protect those we love can be surprising, can reveal bravery and stupidity and honor we never knew we had; that, sometimes, taking a walk in someone else’s shoes will lead you straight to the answers to questions you never knew were yours.
Ellen Urbani is the author of Landfall (2015, Forest Avenue Press), a work of contemporary historical fiction, and the memoir When I Was Elena (2006, The Permanent Press; A BookSense Notable selection). She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama and a master’s degree from Marylhurst University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and numerous anthologies, and has been widely excerpted.
Reviewed by Brandi Dawn Cornelius.