Here is a review of another book I was sent set in New Orleans French Quarter during the time of Hurricane Katrina. I sometimes get books unsolicited, sometimes I review them, sometimes I don’t depending on the subject matter.
Sometimes I get books that have nothing to do with New Orleans and don’t quite understand why they send them to me since it is obvious that this blog is about New Orleans and the surrounding area.
New Orleans French Quarter’s Marvelous Cornelius – Garbageman Hero of Hurricane Katrina
For instance, I recently got sent a book about the underground music scene. A big thick thing with only only brief reference to New Orleans. So there ya go, boom, not gonna review it.
But I did receive a little while ago a marvelous big picture book for kids called Marvelous Cornelius, written by Phil Bildner with illustrations by John Parra, based on the true character, Cornelius Washington, who road the garbage truck through the French Quarter delighting all he passed with his antics of dancing, calling out to people, “Hootie Hoo, Hootie Hoo” and banging trash can lids together.
That was in the heydey of metal and plastic trash cans that were ubiquitous in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, before the garbage companies decided to go “modern” and require all customers to have those giant plastic bins with wheels you can roll out to the curb that apparently is easier on the garbage men and makes everything look tidier. It does. I don’t know if it makes it easier for the men though because I still see them hoisting the big bins by hand instead of hooking them to the contraption on the back that does the work for them.
The pictures in this coffee-table-sized book are simply drawn in a primitive folk art fashion and suit the story well, appropriate because the story is told like a folk tale. We learn about Cornelius and how much everyone loves him as he makes his way through the streets of the Quarter .
And then Katrina comes and the book depicts piles of garbage in the neighborhood some as high as the St. Louis Cathedral. The author notes that this never happened but you know poetic license and all allows exaggeration like this.
I do remember seeing a debris pile at the foot of West End Drive in the days and months after the storm put there by clean up crews. It was at least two times as wide as the cathedral and perhaps would have gone halfway up its height. So, although that was not in the Quarter, in fact, I don’t think there were any debris piles in the Quarter, these massive piles did exist.
Cornelius in the book is the hero who rallies people to not fret and frown but to get to it and start cleaning up the mess, and getting back to the business of living their lives. I think it’s really interesting that the actual Cornelius was raised in a little town in Louisiana called Waterproof. Very telling about this character.
Unfortunately, the real Cornelius died in the years after the storm and this is how the story closes in the book, a sad little note, but his spirit lives on to inspire others. It concludes with the line “But as for his spirit, that’s part of New Orleans, New Orleans forever after.”
What I think is instructive about this tale to kids, and adults as well, is here was a guy, a garbage man, supposedly one of the lowliest jobs on the totem pole, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy what he was doing, and was able to make his job fun and entertain folks as he went by.
Cornelius certainly made a name for himself and showed people that you can take any job and do it in such a way that you can enjoy it. The book appropriately begins with a quote from Martin Luther King:
Even if it’s called your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep street like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
Cornelius seems to be one of those eccentric characters that New Orleans is known for. And we are the better for it. (Aren’t we all eccentric in some way who live here, I mean don’t ya kinda have to be?)
The authors provide a link to resources for teachers with questions and activities to make Marvelous Cornelius more instructive, engaging and fun for their students.
This is a beautiful little book that any young person would love to have. And would be great for any adult to have on their coffee table, another artistic expression of the tens of thousands of stories about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans.