How do you make a familiar story fresh? How do you shine a new light on a familiar landscape? Do what Dave Eggers has done in Zeitoun -- tell a story that most of us know, but tell it from a totally unexpected point of view.
Most U.S. residents know the stories of Hurricane Katrina. If we didn't live through it ourselves, we watched in horror on TV. We felt awful. We sent money to the Red Cross. We try to remember that even now people are still suffering the after-effects.
But I didn't know anything at all about the life of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a New Orleans housepainter, a Syrian immigrant, a man with a wife and four children and strong connections to his New Orleans neighborhood. Eggers embeds Zeitoun's story within the larger story of Katrina, giving us a more personal and unique way to experience it.
Zeitoun's family flees New Orleans ahead of the storm, but Zeitoun stays behind to watch over his house, his rental properties and his warehouse, sure that he is safe in his neighborhood far from the ocean and the levees.
Of course we all know what happens -- Zeitoun's house rapidly fills with water and he spends a week paddling around New Orleans in his canoe, feeding abandoned dogs with the contents of his freezer and rescuing old people. But here is where the twist comes. As a Muslim man Zeitoun becomes the target of a ragtag band of unsupervised law enforcement agents who decide (without any apparent cause) that he must be an Al Qaeda operative sent to stir up trouble. Zeitoun is arrested and imprisoned without charge for a month before his wife and a lawyer manage to secure his release.
Eggers presents Zeitoun so well, and so sympathetically, that rooting for him is like rooting for the city of New Orleans itself. He's a good metaphor for a diverse complicated city. Profits from the book go to the Zeitoun Foundation, which has contributed over $200,000 toward the rebuilding of New Orleans and toward promoting interfaith dialogue.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.