A Review of
Under Surge, Under Siege
The Odyssey of Bay St. Louis and Katrina
(Ellis Anderson; Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010.)
By Julian G. Brunt
Countless words have been written about Hurricane Katrina and its devastating impact on the Gulf Coast, but perhaps none have been penned with more eloquence than Ellis Anderson's Eudora Welty Prize-winning Under Surge, Under Siege: The Odyssey of Bay St. Louis and Katrina, and none more deserves a very serious read. As a result of this book, Ellis was awarded a Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellowship for artistic excellence, and has received praise from National Public Radio and MSNBC. She now has a growing chorus of supporters throughout the country.
I first heard of Ellis shortly after the storm when someone recommended that I read her blog, Katrina-patina. I found it and thought I would give it a glance, but several hours later I had read every word---more than one hundred pages---and was as emotionally drained as if I had been through the storm again. It was riveting. I followed the blog and later managed to meet Ellis in Bay St. Louis, and was very excited to learn earlier this year that her book had finally been published after four years of painstaking work. Recently I sat down with Ellis, and we talked about the book.
Under Surge is the only book written about Katrina and its impact on coastal Mississippi from a true insider's viewpoint. On August 29, 2005, Ellis was in Bay St. Louis, where the very eye of the storm passed. She waded through the waters of the surge and experienced the aftermath, too. "The destruction I witnessed rocked my world," she says. She was still there, days later, when the first organized search and rescue personnel arrived, but by that time Ellis and her friends had been hard at work, caring for each other and any stranger that needed help as well.
This book is not only about Ellis Anderson. It is about her friends and community, a stalwart group ravaged by the worst natural disaster in U. S. history, and how they stood up, almost as one, doing what had to be done to survive. "The storm was the catalyst for revealing the heart of my town," Ellis says, "So the focal point isn't Katrina. It's the people." No one claims to be a hero in this story. Those that found themselves there on that day and the many hot and humid days that followed took the personal responsibility not only to effect their own survival, but to help all of those about them to safety and begin the incredibly long process of rebuilding a shattered town. And that is a process that goes on to this very day.
Ellis' book is beautifully written, almost poetic at times, and you will find tears welling up in your eyes again and again at the sorrow it exposes. "Under Surge is a memoir made up of my journal entries and accounts shared by friends and neighbors. It moves beyond reporting. We lived those stories…," Ellis asserts. You will be inspired by the deeds of everyday people caught in horrific circumstances, but you will also taste the bitterness caused by a government that in so many ways failed its citizens. Survivors of the storm who have read the book almost always say Ellis nailed it, and a book store in Bay St. Louis sold more than five hundred copies soon after it was released.
Under Surge is the book that historians will be referring to in years to come for a true firsthand account of Katrina and its aftermath, and this is the book that thousands will pick up on the anniversary of that terrible day to read again to remember and to honor those who endured.
If you think that you learned through the national media what it was really like to live on the Gulf Coast in those brutal days, this book is going to change your mind. When Ellis posted her blog, it got a lot of attention. "I received hundreds of e-mails from around the world. It was apparent that people 'on the outside' had no clue as to what had taken place in Mississippi," she points out. Here is the book that's going to take you there.
Ellis still lives in Bay St. Louis in the historic Webb school house where she and so many others survived the storm and sought sanctuary after it passed. She is a freelance writer and photographer, and is working on her second book. Her work has appeared in various publications, including the Sun Herald (Biloxi), Southern Cultures, Beach Blvd Magazine, South Mississippi Living and The Journal of South Mississippi Business.
Personal interview with Ellis Anderson, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on September 25, 2010
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