Unbroken, Paula Morris
Unbroken Book blurb
A year ago, Rebecca Brown escaped death in a New Orleans cemetery. Now, she has returned to this haunting city. She is hoping to see handsome Anton Grey, the boy who may or may not have her heart.
She is not expecting to see a ghost: a troubled blue-eyed boy who insists only Rebecca can help him. Soon Rebecca finds herself embroiled in a murder mystery from more than a century ago. But as she tries to right wrongs, she finds more questions than answers: Is she putting her friends – and herself – in danger? Can she trust this new ghost? And has she stumbled into something much bigger and more serious than she understands?” ~ from the inner cover
“When she looked up, the boy with blue eyes was standing right in front of her, close enough to touch.
“Please,” he said. The boy was tall, like Anton, but his face was as white as chiseled marble.
“What do you want?” Rebecca hissed.
As though he understood what she was looking for, the boy inched back his jacket. His white shirt was stained with a huge dark splotch of what might have been ink, or was more likely blood.
“You have to help me,” he sai. “I need someone who can find something for me. Something very precious. Very valuable. If it isn’t found, then I’m doomed to haunt the docks, here and down there, for eternity.”” ~ from the back of the book
New Orleans, March 1873. The Civil War is over, but the spirit of the city has been broken. New Orleans is dirty and disease-ridden, a place of political and racial violence, looting, and unsolved murders. The city is on edge, ready to explode.
The docks are still busy, loading and unloading heavy cargoes of cotton, sugar, and coffee every day. The river is crowded with steamers, its levee piled high with cotton bales. When the wind blows, pinches of cotton drift through the air like snow.
New arrivals flock to the city, hoping to make their fortune. Many end up starving and poverty-stricken. Many succumb to yellow fever, the mysterious and feared disease ravaging the city. Some are robbed – or worse – in one of the many dark alleys or hidden courtyards of the old town.
One damp spring day, as a misty evening begins to settle on the city, a teenage boy hurries away from the dock. He wends his way through the streets of the Quarter, speaking to nobody. His face is pale and sunken; his trousers – ragged at the hems – are flecked with cotton dust. More than one of the city’s legion of pickpockets notice the way he pats his jacket every few steps. With every nervous pat, he gives himself away: They can tell that he’s carrying something precious, something unfamiliar in his pocket. Perhaps it’s money: perhaps it’s something valuable he can sell or trade. Perhaps it’s something he’s stolen himself.
He crosses the broad, muddy expanse of Rampart Street, dodging carts and carriages, soldiers on horseback, washer-women balancing bundles of laundry on their heads. A dark-haired, burly man follows him, taking care to keep up.
On the far side of Rampart, they both disappear into Tremé, the old neighborhood built decades earlier for New Orlean’s free people of color. They’ll both end up in a small house on St. Philip Street, fighting over the tiny piece of hidden treasure in the boy’s pocket.
Neither will make it out alive.” (p.1-2)
Ref: Paula Morris (2013) Unbroken: A Ruined Novel. Point (Scholastic): New York
Themes in the novel
RACE RELATIONS; DISCRIMINATION; COMMUNITY; FAMILY; FEAR; HOME; HAUNTING; CITIES AND POWER; REDEMPTION; NEW ORLEANS IN LITERATURE; URBAN CHANGE; SUPPORT NETWORKS AND NEIGHBOURHOODS; THE PRESENCE OF HISTORY; VIOLENCE
Possible directions for study/questions to apply to Unbroken
Consider the quotes Morris has chosen to open her novel with (in context of the story Unbroken tells):
“The position of New Orleans certainly destines it to be the greatest city the world has ever seen.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, 1804
“Louisiana to-day is Paradise Lost.” ~ Edward King, 1873
What relevance have these quotes to the novel?
I think, as with Ruined, this novel is shaped by the notion that history shapes us; that the actions of those in the past impact on us greatly here in the present… the haunted urban spaces of the novel allow this idea to be explored through an adolescent romantic mystery, but New Orleans plays an important role here. Consider the first words of the novel: “New Orleans, March 1873. The Civil War is over, but the spirit of the city has been broken. New Orleans is dirty and disease-ridden, a place of political and racial violence, looting, and unsolved murders. The city is on edge, ready to explode.” (p.1)
The theme seems deliberately to be continued:
Lisette’s comment on the past in Ruined (Book 1) is reiterated here: “The past doesn’t go away. You just can’t see it anymore.” (p.88)
When her father reassures himself that the events of the first novel are finished with and can be forgotten (“It’s all in the past now. No more ghosts, right?” (p.61)), Rebecca realises that “Nothing was in the past – or, at least, things that were meant to be in the past didn’t always stay there. They came back to haunt the present. They wouldn’t go away.” (p.62)
Perhaps this is one argument for a sequel to Ruined? The past is never finished, as it were. One blogger didn’t feel the sequel met expectations because (among other reasons) the ghost was ‘just a random ghost,’ but perhaps the many ways we connect with the past around us is part of the point of these novels? Certainly, Frank’s ‘lack of family connection’ initially stops Anton from getting involved (p.166). Do you need a family connection to help someone? That seems like the kind of question raised and answered by Katrina. The value of community spirit is also present in Ling and Rebecca’s work clearing the schoolgrounds in their Spring Break….
Some other quotes relevant here:
Anton notes that “Sometimes it’s hard to break with the past…. Old habits. Old friends. I guess we’re all loyal to people and places even if…” “Even if they suck?” Rebecca finishes. (pp.47-48)
The evil ghost, Gideon, warns Rebecca off helping Frank, saying: “I’m talking about history. You trying to mess with history. You’re trying to mess with eternity.” (p.107)
I think the museum director’s speech at the end is interesting in this context, too; he states: “There’s also a number of teenagers here we have to thank, for rescuing this fascinating piece of art history – and New Orleans history – from what would have turned out to be its tomb…. We still can’t believe that for almost a hundred and fifty years, this priceless locket lay under the floorboards of a tiny house in Tremé. It just goes to show you how this great city of ours continues to offer up treasures, how it never ceases too amaze us.” (p.283)
Similarly, Neighbourhoods are important to this story:
The impact of politics and history on neighbourhoods and the people in them determines the shape of this tale. Consider Toby’s contemptuous attitude towards Tremé, “They should burn this whole neighborhood down. Move everyone into projects. Better still, move them all too Texas. Or straight to prison, ’cause that’s where most of them’ll end up anyway.” (p.265) …or Rebecca’s father’s concern over the time she is spending there (p.169)
The changing nature of neighbourhoods and the losses that could entail is also commented upon more than once. Consider: Ling states: “When you take away the buildings, you take away the history of a place,” but Rebecca argues that “history lives in people as well as buildings.” (p.168) Within the same discussion, Rebecca’s father notes that, regarding Tremé, “a much bigger concern is the one Rafael’s grandmother was talking about the other day. Prices going up may be a bigger threat to the history of the neighborhood, and to the history of the city, than houses coming down. If you take the people out of Tremé – the social clubs, the musicians, the Mardi Gras Indians – then you disperse that living, breathing culture. Maybe you even kill it off. So you’ll be left with pretty streets lined with pretty houses, but those streets’ll be empty. Or else it’ll be like the Quarter, filling the void with tourists. And the story the neighborhood is telling, its own particular history that draws on tradition and invents new ones, like jazz, will go quiet. The soul will be gone.” (pp.168-169)
In fact, Rebecca’s father has a lot to say on neighbourhoods:
“Wherever you have poor neighborhoods, in any city in the world, you have a whole lot of people who don’t want to be poor. Some will get jobs to earn money, some will get it any way they can. It’s human nature.” ~ Rebecca’s Dad (p.92)
“I guess you have to weigh what’s more important to a neighborhood – the people who live there now, or the people who used to live there…. And as much as I love the craftsmanship and history of some of those houses, a neighborhood isn’t just about pieces of wood. As we saw after Katrina, those things can get swept away by floodwaters, or blown to pieces by the wind. A neighborhood, a community – it’s about the people.” ~ Rebecca’s Dad (p.167). NB also, p.86; p.87; p.89; 100-101. There is a complexity to these opinions that Morris has spent some time incorporating into her story. The ghosts in this version of New Orleans have something particular to say about the tensions between historic life and modern needs. Furthermore, the ghosts are trying to get the protagonist’s attention (p.84), so what do they have to say to the reader?
I guess I’m saying that urban change is a feature in this novel. This change is complex, though, and making sense of it depends entirely on one’s perspective. (Aunt Claudia, describing local food traditions, states that “Nothing changes in New Orleans.” (p.80)) The novel certainly ends on this point: “That was the way it was in New Orleans, and in every old haunted city across the world. Ghosts vanished, and new ghosts arrived to take their place. Things changed. Things stayed the same.” (p.288)
There are also plenty of secret worlds within this city – the world of the ghosts, the world of the Indians: “Everything was secretive in this city, [Rebecca] thought, even the houses.” (p.23) “Rebecca had only the haziest recollection of social aid clubs. They were just another of New Orleans’s secret worlds, with their own schedules and rules and members.” (p.53)
Lafayette Cemetery, “With its long alleys of overgrown foliage and silent tombs,” feels “like an abandoned city, a place of ruins and secrets.” (p.69)
“There were too many ghosts around here, Rebecca thought. Too many secrets.” (p.85)
Aurelia gets in trouble (chapter 22) because of her sense that she is being kept out of secrets due to her age (p.78)
The novel constantly reminds us that not everyone experiences the city’s political and social (and climactic?) pressures the same way, but those different stories aren’t always being told.
So, if urban change and secret worlds and neighbourliness are the setting, who is the protagonist? How does she grow? How do her family and friendships change in this setting?
Relevant here as well, I think, is the point that different people have different relationships with a city (p.89; 156 etc). One’s sense of belonging can change over time (p.286) (and is sometimes the result of a determined effort (p.55) rather than one of birth); the people around you might move on (p.285). Things change and things stay the same… so…
What does “the relentless loneliness of the world of ghosts” (p.39) bring to this story of adolescence in new Orleans?
The history of violence in new Orleans is mentioned over and again. The ghosts are all marked by the violence in which their lives ended. Violence has an overt presence in this novel; what story does that violence tell?
What of the role of redemption in this tale and in our lives? As with Lisette in Ruined, the ghost, Delphine, is freed from her haunted state because she helps Rebecca and her friends (p.278)
Perhaps a random thought, but what is it with ghosts and mystery? Even when there’s romance involved, ghost fiction usually has mystery (I know that’s not an all-inclusive statement). Is it that such spiritual beliefs resist scientific explanation and mysteries often require a certain deductive reasoning to be solved? Is it a separation of spirit from body that mystifies us so? Or is it the intelligent but particularly corporeal existence itself that lends itself to mystery?
NB: Erin Mercer presents a very interesting discussion of Paula Morris work (specifically Hibiscus Coast) in terms of its New Zealandness (and her New Zealandness as an author, in spite of her often choosing to set her novels ‘elsewhere’). Ref: Erin Mercer (2009) ‘Urban Spaces, Hybrid Faces: Rethinking Identity in Paula Morris’ Hibiscus Coast‘ pp.124-141 in Eds. Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford Floating Worlds: Essays on Contemporary New Zealand Fiction. Victoria University press: Wellington.
Texts that invite comparison
Perhaps the other ‘haunted city’ novels that Morris herself has written – Unbroken and Dark Souls? … I’m going to have to think this through some more in terms of specific texts.
What other YA fiction is there based in New Orleans? See, for example, http://www.yareadinglist.com/2013/02/mardi-gras-books-in-new-orleans.html. How is New Orleans represented by these books? In what other ways does this city, with its unique history, lend itself to the telling of tales? What kind of tales with what kinds of people? NB: Among other resources, Morris recommends the following websites at the end of this novel:
www.neighborhoodstoryproject.org (the Neighborhood Story Project)
www.noaam.org (the New Orleans African American Museum)
It may be worth considering the content therein and relating it back to the text(s).
Also, just a thought, there is an academic article that could prove relevant: Chowdhury, Radhiah. ‘Dreams Do Come True in New Orleans’: American Fairy Tales, Post-Katrina New Orleans, and Disney’s ‘The Princess and the Frog’ (2009) [online].Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature, Vol. 20, No. 2, 2010: 25-40.
Morris’s Unbroken: a History
Publishing details: Paula Morris (2013) Unbroken: A Ruined Novel. Point (Scholastic): New York
Bibliography of secondary literature:
- Paula Morris has received quite a bit of interesting attention, though I’m not aware of anything directed specifically at the Ruined series…. Other critical work on her fiction may well be relevant, though, since much of it deals in themes and considers her work as a writer. (I’ve mentioned this other work in other blogs: https://backyardbooks.wordpress.com/tag/paula-morris/)
- There are interviews and reviews around the place, some of which may prove interesting:
Refer earlier blog: “Introducing Paula Morris”