The Yellow House Summary
The Yellow House by Sarah Broom is a 2019 memoir that traces the history of the author's family in New Orleans and her own experiences with the city.
- Broom was raised in a yellow house in New Orleans East, an area separated by canals and roadways from the center of the city.
- The narrative describes the lives of Broom's grandmother, Lolo, and her mother, Ivory Mae.
- After growing up in New Orleans, Broom left as a young adult. In 2005, while Broom was living in New York, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, destroying the Yellow House and scattering her family.
Last Updated on January 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1234
Sarah M. Broom introduces her hometown, New Orleans East, and her childhood home, 4121 Wilson Avenue. The home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. Despite the absence of the house, her brother Carl can still be found there most days after working at his maintenance job at NASA.
New Orleans East exists in utter isolation. The city is not mentioned in most travel books, and most guided tours of New Orleans will not visit the area unless it is to marvel at the hurricane’s destruction.
Broom introduces her maternal grandmother, Amelia “Lolo.” Little is known about Amelia’s family tree—not even the spelling of Amelia’s mother’s name, Rosanna, is certain.
In her adolescence, Lolo lives in a boardinghouse where she meets Sarah McCutcheon, who becomes her chosen mother. Sarah teaches Lolo how to dress and cook, and she places a large emphasis on the beauty of things—clothing as well as food, which always has to be lovingly prepared.
Lolo meets Lionel Soule, a married man who extramaritally fathers her three children: Joseph, Elaine, and Ivory. Lionel remains completely absent from his children’s lives but still provides money to help raise them. Lolo is invested in providing her children with “a childhood she had not had,” putting great care into decorating each house in which they live.
Ivory drops out of high school when she becomes pregnant and marries her childhood friend Edward Webb. Webb is hit and killed by a car while away training for the army. Despite the official death report that describes the incident as accidental, Webb’s community suspects his death was “racially motivated.”
Six months following Webb’s death, Ivory’s third child, Darryl, is born; he is a product of extramarital sex with a man named Simon Broom.
Ivory meets Simon, Sarah Broom’s father, three months before her husband, Edward Webb, dies. She is drawn to Simon’s age: he is nineteen years her senior. They marry in the summer of 1964.
At the age of nineteen, Ivory buys her first house, which will become known as the Yellow House, located in New Orleans East. Broom discusses the emergence of the East and the national buzz it received for its goal of growing the population in New Orleans and bringing financial growth. Despite this buzz, the street and the houses that lined it were not respected or regarded as true homes. Trailer parks and junk lots were starting to take up residence across from the houses, and “The land where the houses stood was always on the verge of being bought up.”
Adding insult to injury, in 1965, Hurricane Betsy tears through New Orleans and deeply affects the already struggling street. The street floods quickly, and the destruction is attributed to the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, an “expensive failure” that was meant to create “a more efficient water route that would . . . draw more commercial traffic." The unrestrained waterways breached surrounding levees meant to protect the residential areas. Because New Orleans East was such a neglected area, precautions were not taken to forestall such destruction. Following its decimation by the hurricane, the house that will become known as the Yellow House is rebuilt.
Sarah Broom officially enters the story in part 2. She is born on New Year’s Eve in 1979. Simon Broom dies from a brain aneurism six months after his daughter is born. Broom did not attend her father’s funeral, because, as her mother says, “Nobody wanted to be holding no baby.”
Broom reveals that her real first name is Monique. On her first day of kindergarten, Ivory advises her, “When those people ask your name, tell them Sarah.” Ivory believes the name Sarah will help her better acclimate to a predominately white school.
In 1997, Broom graduates high school and attends the University of North Texas. As a college student, she finally feels at home in her dorm room—this is the first time in her life she does not feel ashamed about her home.
The family flees New Orleans in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina. At this point, Broom is living in New York and hears about the events from her relatives. On September 29, 2005, “a month to the day that the storm hit,” Grandma Lolo dies.
The Broom family goes to visit the Yellow House, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Broom describes the wreckage—there are birds living in the house, a fourth door has been created by the strength of incoming water, and the house’s original color, green, peeks through the yellow Broom grew up knowing.
In July 2006, without adequate warning, the Yellow House is demolished by the City of New Orleans. There was one letter of notice from the city, but no one was at the house to receive it.
After the hurricane, Broom visits New Orleans from New York frequently. Despite these visits, she wishes to forget “the lack of clean running water or bus service, trash pickup, mental health services,” and in order to forget, she travels. When she learns about an East African country called Burundi that is undergoing a severe human rights crisis, Broom quits her job at O, The Oprah Magazine, and begins working for an independent radio station in Burundi called Radio Publique Africaine. The founder of the station claims it will “advance human rights in Burundi.”
After moving to Burundi, Broom struggles with the language barrier, writing letters to friends and family to feel heard. She eventually realizes her life there is untenable and moves back to New Orleans.
Upon her return, Broom becomes the speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans, but she is conflicted about working for a government that does so little for its citizens. Mayor Ray Nagin is the first white mayor of New Orleans in years and says all the wrong things, like calling New Orleans the “Chocolate City” and referring to himself as a “vagina-friendly mayor.”
Broom begins writing the mayor’s State of the City speech, focusing on the recovery efforts in New Orleans post-Katrina. She travels to see the recovery for herself and realizes that the efforts she illustrates in the speech are not actually occurring. Finding it too emotionally draining, Broom quits her job at City Hall when her six-month tenure ends.
Broom briefly returns to her apartment in New York and becomes the executive director of a nonprofit that provides free healthcare clinics in Burundi. After one of her employees is killed while delivering medical supplies, however, Broom decides to return to New Orleans to pursue writing.
Wanting to the live in the center of the city, Broom moves in to a small apartment in the French Quarter. From her balcony, she critiques the rampant tourism, describing the commodification of the Black Indian, typically seen only "on St. Joseph’s Day in March and on Mardi Gras morning when they appear to show off the costumes they have made with their own hands.” She continues, “now, you can be photographed with a man dressing up as one for a dollar.” The tourist attractions for which New Orleans is known, Broom argues, distract from the city’s deep corruption.
Ivory sells the Yellow House and its land. Afterward, she and Broom laugh “about small nothings.” Broom wants to ask her mother specific questions about the house, but instead the two “made light because, what else? The story of our house was the only thing left.”