Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Thelonius Rising: NoLa Survivor Tale

Most of us who consider ourselves avid--even voracious--readers are often asked we get the titles of books we read. The answer is complicated. We have our own web of fellow readers whose taste in books we trust.  We know which publications we can count on giving us a reliable nod to the "next new great book."

More than anything, I love to discover a book before it hits the mainstream.  I read and recommended The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (still on my short list of favorites) before OPRAH read it. 

This summer, among my the serendipitous brown envelopes that find their way to my mailbox was a box with a bag of emergency candles and a copy of Judith Richards' novel Thelonius Rising.  Opening in New Orleans just before Katrina hits, Richards' story follows nine-year-old Thelonius Monk DeCay, raised by his grandmother after his mother dies and his father leaves.

A natural showman, he and his friend Percy dress down, and dance in Jackson Square for tips from tourists.  He is befriended by an old, colorful historian Quinton Toussaint, who protect their spot for performance and who introduces Monk to a homeless man who suffers from mental illness.

Living in the Lower Ninth Ward, Monk, his grandmother, and neighbors are caught unprepared by the sudden rise of waters when the levees give way.

In a second line of her narrative, Richards introduces Donna, the aunt Monk never met, sister to his long-missing father.  Charged with finding the boy and his grandmother, she ignores caution and heads toward New Orleans, joining forces with a reporter for a local tabloid who helps her in her search.

The novel does what dozens of newspaper articles didn't do:  it brings readers face to face with the people caught in the disaster.  Rather than focusing on the failure of politicians at every level, Richards allows readers to care genuinely about the individuals affect by the winds, water, and the aftermath. 

As I read--almost nonstop on Saturday--I was already seeing the scenes in my head.  I'm wondering just how long it will take for someone else--Oprah or Spielberg?--to have the vision to take this story to the big screen.  I'll bet the soundtrack will be dynamite too.

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