Essence LaFontaine and Grace Woodson don’t know each other, but soon Hurricane Katrina will blow into their lives, forcing them together into a different kind of storm—a storm swirling with the winds of bigotry and prejudice. Can the girls find their way to the light behind the clouds?
In the early morning hours of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, quickly devastating the area and covering nearly 80 percent of the city in water. In the Ninth Ward, people sought refuge in their attics and on rooftops. Survivors of the deadly storm were stranded at the Superdome, lacking sufficient supplies, food and water. Many lost their homes. Many others lost their lives.
In the year of the tenth anniversary of this tragedy, author Barbara J. Rebbeck poses the question of what would happen when the New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) refugees of the storm entered the lives of the privileged. Would some try to help while others resorted to racial discrimination similar to that of the 40s and 50s? Says the author, “I saw two young ladies, Grace from the affluent suburbs of Houston, Texas and Essence from the impoverished Ninth Ward of New Orleans thrown together in the wake of Katrina.” These ponderings led to thoughts of Rebbeck’s favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a novel she had introduced to her students over her years as a middle school teacher.
In her novel NOLA Gals, Rebbeck brings together her young characters, Essence and Grace, amidst the turmoil of the aftermath of Katrina while drawing parallels to the characters and racial issues found throughout Harper Lee’s classic work. As with her students, the author hopes that her young readers’ eyes will be opened to the great themes of injustice and courage exemplified within both novels.
Hurricane Katrina strikes with a fury and although sisters Essence and Chardonnai are rescued, their grandmother Mimmi stays behind with their skinny poodle, George. After terrifying hours in the Superdome they board a bus for the Houston Astrodome along with other victims of Hurricane Katrina, including a man named Harold, who Essence strongly suspects is her long-lost father.
After Grace is suspended from St. Catherine’s for her disobedient behavior, she accompanies her father, a psychologist, to the Astrodome to help with the evacuees. She sees before her the lessons of her required reading, To Kill a Mockingbird, and at a loss as to what to do, she begins to read the book aloud to a tattered group including Essence and her new family of fellow survivors.
With the city of New Orleans devastated, the Woodson family allows Essence and Chardonnai to live with them and both girls begin school at St. Catherine’s. But, like a hurricane, trouble is brewing.
Rebbeck also says of her work, “I seek depth in my writing. There are no vampires. No wizards. Just the turmoil of teens set in the reality of history.” NOLA Gals is the story of two girls from completely different walks of life and their journey to bring about a healing that will change their lives forever.