On the seventh anniversary of Katrina, Hurricane Isaac threatened to hit New Orleans hard. Miles away, safe in my Northeast home, I settled in to read Hell or High Water by Joy Castro. My decision was not deliberate, but it proved to be appropriate, with New Orleans herself playing a main character, and Katrina lurking as the villain who changed everything. The story of the city parallels the story of the human characters in Hell or High Water: men and women who have faced their own villains and came out violated, damaged, and scarred for life. Can they reach a stage of recovery, as perhaps New Orleans has, where those scars are almost medals, proof of courage shown and resilience proved from deep within? Hell or High Water gives me hope for both for the city and her inhabitants.
Hell or High Water is a great book, not only for introducing me to New Orleans beyond her usual beignet and Bourbon Street confinements, but also for offering a realistic, moving, and deeply human story about trauma, resilience, and recovery. But that's not all: Hell or High Water is an edge-of-the-seat thriller, a page turner with so many twists and hidden clues and sudden light beaming down that I have already reread the whole thing, eager to find the early indicators of the great surprises launched by Castro at all the key points of the book.
History book, sociological study, criminal analysis, love story, thriller, and immigrant epic: Hell or High Water has it all, and Castro does it all so well. Running through all the linking lines of storytelling is her main question: What is the nature of trauma (whether it be slavery, forced emigration, rape, floods, or confinement), and how can scars be softened, if not erased? It is up to Nola Cespedes, ambitious young reporter for the Times-Picayune, to form the question and attempt an answer, not only for the assignment she is given but for her own sanity.
The assignment given to Nola, one that might finally jumpstart her career and get her off the lifestyle pages, starts out as a simple inquiry into what happened to the 1,300 registered sex offenders who went off the grid when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Where are they now, and who is in danger? Nola quickly realizes that the story runs so much deeper than numbers and fears: It is a story of how predators are made, how victims survive, and how hope is ignited, often out of very little material, for recovery.
As Nola gets deep -- too deep? -- into her investigation, another story sweeps the city: A young woman has been kidnapped in the light of day, snatched from a restaurant. Fear runs through the Quarter, as this is the third case of kidnapping, with both previous victims found days later, raped and murdered, and washed up on the banks of the Mississippi. Nola feels in her gut that the answer to who is carrying out the brutal rapes is within her grasp -- but to make the grab and nab the bad guy will take an act of bravery and faith on par with the saving of New Orleans, an act forceful enough to bring the dark into light, and the afflicted to comfort. Hell or High Water is a marvelous novel and a stunning follow-up to Castro's 2005 memoir, The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among Jehovah's Witnesses.
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