69 pages 2 hours read

Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ninth Ward

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2010

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Summary and Study Guide


Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ninth Ward is a realistic middle grade novel that follows 12-year-old Lanesha, a resident of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward neighborhood, in the days surrounding Hurricane Katrina, a devastating storm that hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. Lanesha must rely on her resourcefulness, resilience, and fortitude to survive the storm and subsequent flooding of the Ninth Ward. First published in 2010 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, the book earned a School Library Journal Best Fiction Award and a Coretta Scott King Honor Author Award, both in 2010. This guide follows the 2012 Scholastic paperback edition.

Plot Summary

Lanesha is a young Black American girl who lives in the Ninth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana. Her mother died giving birth to her, and she does not know her father. Lanesha was raised by Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who attended her birth. Mama Ya-Ya is an 82-year-old woman who never married and has no family besides Lanesha. The story opens on Lanesha’s 12th birthday, a late-August Sunday on which she and Mama Ya-Ya pick flowers, make jambalaya, and share birthday cake. At the end of the day, Lanesha helps the elderly woman to bed. She then retreats to her recently painted bedroom, where she reflects with gratitude on Mama Ya-Ya’s love and care, since her Uptown family members (relatives of her mother) do not acknowledge her. Lanesha is also grateful that Mama Ya-Ya teaches her about signs and symbols in dreams and nature. Mama Ya-Ya knows that Lanesha can see ghosts, including the ghost of her mother who often appears on Mama Ya-Ya’s bed, where she died giving birth to Lanesha.

The day after her birthday, Lanesha thinks about the ghosts she sees. They appear to her all the time and represent many different time periods and walks of life. Lanesha has trouble making friends because others do not understand her ability. In English class, Lanesha thinks about fellow classmate TaShon, a boy who lives near her and for whom Mama Ya-Ya also served as midwife. TaShon is small for his age, quiet, and distracted in school. Lanesha knows befriending him would only make the teasing he receives worse, because students often call her names like “crazy” or “witch.” On Tuesday, Lanesha stays for an advanced math lesson from Miss Johnson, who tells her she could be an engineer one day and sparks a new interest in bridges. On her walk home, Lanesha rescues TaShon from bullies. TaShon saved a dog from the bullies, and Lanesha agrees to harbor the dog, whom TaShon names Spot, at her house. At home, Mama Ya-Ya mentions a storm coming. On Wednesday, Mama Ya-Ya wants Lanesha to get supplies at the store after school. A classmate, Ginia, goes with Lanesha to the store, and they walk home together. Lanesha is hopeful for new friends in TaShon and Ginia.

The weather reports regarding the storm worsen on Thursday; Mama Ya-Ya becomes increasingly upset as she cannot understand her own bad dreams about it. On Friday, Lanesha goes to school, but it has been canceled. Miss Johnson sends her home with an algebra book for self-study and a warning to leave town. Mama Ya-Ya’s agitation and worry become more pronounced; her dreams suggest they will weather the storm, but she sees something dark and worrisome after the storm she does not understand. On Saturday, the mayor orders an evacuation, but Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya do not have a vehicle or any money for transportation. Lanesha’s apprehension drives her to cook food and board windows. On Sunday, neighbors who plan to stay grill meat and play music, but by evening everyone is quiet in their homes. Overnight, the storm hits; Lanesha makes Mama Ya-Ya and Spot get into the bathtub with her because she is sure the house will blow apart in the raging wind and rain. The hurricane’s eye passes over the Ninth Ward.

Once it is light outside, Lanesha sees trees down and destruction in the street, but she is thrilled that they—and the house—have survived. Mama Ya-Ya, however, seems greatly weakened and tells Lanesha to move their supplies to the attic. TaShon arrives; he was separated from his parents in the thousands who crowded the Superdome for shelter. TaShon and Mama Ya-Ya rest while Lanesha moves things to the attic; her mother’s ghost watches her. When Lanesha goes to fetch the axe from the shed, she discovers the yard is flooding. Soon the water reaches the second floor, and TaShon and Lanesha help move Mama Ya-Ya and Spot up to the attic. The attic is sweltering hot, and Mama Ya-Ya does not survive the night. Lanesha grieves but knows she will soon see Mama Ya-Ya’s ghost. A few hours later, the floodwaters reach the attic; Lanesha pulls the furniture together so she, TaShon, and Spot can climb up, but soon she must use the axe to chop a hole around the tiny attic window to escape. They climb to the roof and wait through all of Monday for help, which never comes. Finally, Lanesha convinces TaShon that they must use a heavy tree trunk pulled from the flood to knock a neighbor’s rowboat loose. In their attempt, Lanesha plunges into the dark water and, ready to give up, almost drowns, until her mother’s ghost saves her. Safe in the boat with TaShon and Spot, Lanesha sees Mama Ya-Ya’s spirit, then hears Mama Ya-Ya and her mother say they love her. TaShon and Lanesha row until they are rescued by two men in a motorboat.