Between Two Skies by Joanne O’Sullivan
Genre: Historical YA | Release Date: April 25, 2017 | My Rating:
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Hurricane Katrina sets a teenage girl adrift. But a new life — and the promise of love — emerges in this rich, highly readable debut.
Bayou Perdu, a tiny fishing town way, way down in Louisiana, is home to sixteen-year-old Evangeline Riley. She has her best friends, Kendra and Danielle; her wise, beloved Mamere; and back-to-back titles in the under-sixteen fishing rodeo. But, dearest to her heart, she has the peace that only comes when she takes her skiff out to where there is nothing but sky and air and water and wings. It’s a small life, but it is Evangeline’s. And then the storm comes, and everything changes. Amid the chaos and pain and destruction comes Tru — a fellow refugee, a budding bluesman, a balm for Evangeline’s aching heart. Told in a strong, steady voice, with a keen sense of place and a vivid cast of characters, here is a novel that asks compelling questions about class and politics, exile and belonging, and the pain of being cast out of your home. But above all, this remarkable debut tells a gently woven love story, difficult to put down, impossible to forget.
I received an e-ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects how much I loved this book.
I was intrigued by the concept of this story. I was a teenager when Katrina hit (2005) and remember seeing the news coverage, but being entirely unable to imagine what it would be like to be literally cast adrift. The beautiful writing in Between Two Skies immediately drew me in. The story starts right before the storm and follows the Riley family as they struggle to adjust to their new life in Atlanta—with varying results. Mama settles into a new office job, forgetting about the diner she ran in Bayou Perdu, while Daddy struggles to find odd jobs and becomes increasingly depressed. Meanwhile, her older sister Mandy longs to go back to her life as popular cheerleader and can’t seem to adjust to their new high school. Evangeline clings to her grandmother and namesake, Mamere, seeking guidance and encouragement, and tries to embrace her new life while silently longing for her old one—and searching fruitlessly for her lost best friend, Danielle.
Katrina displacement: class, culture, race, & heartbreak
I can’t imagine losing my entire hometown to a natural disaster, but I think it’s important that we don’t forget the devastation Katrina caused in particular. We don’t like to talk about the messy parts of our recent history, but this is a big one. We don’t like to talk about Katrina—and how the government’s delayed response reflects on a class system in which Katrina’s victims were viewed as secondary simply because they were often poor. Evangeline’s family is solidly working class, and her dad in particular clashes with the middle class world they find themselves in while living in Atlanta. The book doesn’t shy away from talking about class, something not a lot of YA books do at all, much less with any amount of grace.
I appreciated getting a window into Cajun culture, the mixing of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, and the way everyone seems to look out for each other. This is definitely something I’d like to see more of, and I appreciated the way Evangeline talks about race: she identifies herself as white, while her best friend Kendra is black, and her love interest, Tru, is Vietnamese. The natural diversity that is just part of Cajun life was really refreshing to read, and not something I knew a whole lot about.
I really connected with Evangeline’s voice: she’s a girl who’s very connected to nature (a totally dying breed) and she feels torn between her past and the life she builds after Katrina. This is one of the few YA books I’ve read where narration really steals the show; Evangeline is extremely observant of her family and the story flows like the water she loves so much. The language really showcases the heartbreak of being torn away from your home and the conflict of trying to adjust to new surroundings without forgetting who you are. Anyone who’s ever moved away from home can relate to this, but it’s really a story about being displaced—and how that makes you feel lost and torn apart.
the romance verdict: adorable
This is another book where the romance surprised me, in that I actually have no criticisms of it. Evangeline’s conversations and interactions with Tru feel very realistic; wouldn’t you cling to someone from close to home when you’re both refugees together? The romance develops slowly as they get to know each other better, but their bond is built on something extremely deep and real. Their conversations gave me goosebumps, because Tru is one of those guys who doesn’t shy away from talking about the deep stuff. Their relationship shows something that’s very true about grief and depression more generally: life doesn’t stop when something terrible happens, and sometimes you have to take happiness where you can find it—because you know it may be brief.
Between Two Skies is a beautifully-written story of the heartache that comes from losing your home, your past, and not knowing what your future can possibly look like. It’s a story about serious depression that can come from traumatic events, but it’s also a story about continuing to have hope, about fighting for who you are in spite of where you are now.
Have you read Between Two Skies or any other books about Hurricane Katrina? Let me know in the comments below.