I began reading Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, because I wanted to learn about Hurricane Katrina from people who were in New Orleans when it happened. I had seen the news footage, but this does not come close to first-hand accounts: what was it like when the storm hit, how did everyday Americans deal with the devastation, and how were their efforts to rebuild helped or hindered by the U.S. government? Eggers approaches the story of the Zeitoun family through a non-fiction lens, detailing the struggle a reader may find hard to believe is possible for a family in this country to experience. He contrasts an objective view by also delving deep providing an empathetic perspective. Due to the author’s decision to tell a story that includes both components of non-fiction and empathy, I have mixed reactions as a reader that eventually lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the situation being documented.
Eggers describes the Zeitoun family in ways that both familiarize and distance them from readers. Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun are an American family with similarities to the reader: they highly value family and friends and feel lucky for their good fortune. Zeitoun, the father, is kind and well-liked by his wife, children, friends, and patrons of his business. He is different in that he is also an Islamic Syrian immigrant. Reading about his five-time-per day prayer schedule and American- born and raised wife Kathy’s insistence on wearing a hijab in public, distances them from a many American readers. The reader learns about Zeitoun’s past in Syria and Kathy’s conversion to Islam and wonders why Eggers chooses them as a representation of a typical New Orleans’family. The differences between this family and many others are highlighted by the author, because they are essential to the story. The reader questions his or her own stereotypical thinking and reconsiders how these thought processes affect the family and this country at it’s highest levels of government in the wake of the storm.
When the storm arrives and the levees holding back the flood water break, Zeitoun, a former sailor, stays in the city to salvage what is left of the family home and business and to help those left behind. Zeitoun, both a victim and aid to those in need, becomes an insider as opposed to an outsider in the eyes of the reader. So, when the government sends armed militia into the city, and they arrest, jail, and eventually imprison Zeitoun, all without cause, he is the victim in the eyes of the reader. Eggers uses the reader’s newly evolved empathic relatability to the man and the unfairness of his situation to gain attention about larger issues surrounding the aftermath of the hurricane. The reader sees there are deep seeded issues for people in this country about which he or she has no idea.
Most Americans don’t think that horror stories such as this can or do happen in the United States. We ignore injustices when they happen to other people, because it makes us feel uncomfortable and guilty. We rely upon people like Zeithoun and Eggers to tell these stories, because when they are publicized we have to acknowledge them. Providing alternative perspectives and stories is essential to moving toward true equality in this country. Eggers makes it so that others can work not to repeat these mistakes in the future.
Final Star Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars