As Hurricane Katrina approaches in August 2015, Armani Curtis, a young African-American resident of the Ninth Ward, has only one thing on her mind—her tenth birthday. Dark portents, however, threaten to encroach on her excitement, as her MeMaw and her brother, Georgie, pace anxiously in anticipation of the storm. The next-door neighbors have already evacuated, but only Armani and Georgie know this. Armani, too excited about her birthday to worry about the storm, makes Georgie promise he won’t tell their parents about the neighbors.
Under an increasingly black sky and amid troublingly strong winds, the tenth birthday barbeque for Armani begins in earnest. Despite the obvious meteorological distress rapidly enveloping them, Armani couldn’t be more pleased with her birthday celebration. The family shares a blue buttercream frosting cake and Armani receives a puppy named Cricket. For the reader, who is aware of the devastation to come, the suspense here is almost unbearable.
Suddenly, another neighbor interrupts the barbeque, affirming that the storm is worst than anyone expected and that it’s too late to evacuate. The party ends as the family must hunker down for the coming winds. Windows shatter, and there is a good deal of panic. However, certain members of the Curtis clan have seen storms before. What they couldn’t possibly expect, however, is the failure of the nearby levees, which creates a giant wave heading straight toward their row of houses. Watching the water envelop and destroy everything in its path, the family grabs the puppy and the baby, and they all head to the attic. While secure for the moment in the attic, they see the floodwaters gradually rising around them. They only had time to grab a few bottles of water, forgetting to grab the asthma medication for the baby, who is gasping for air. Things get worse when little Cricket, Armani’s beloved new pup, falls into the water.
Georgie and Armani leap into the water to go after Cricket, but soon they are all carried away by the fast-moving floodwaters. The rest of the family can do nothing but wait for the floodwaters to recede or for the family to be rescued.
Eventually, the family reaches dry land. Armani’s mother calculates that she should look for her husband and son on her own, leaving Armani in charge of MeMaw and her baby brother. This launches an important emotional journey for Armani. At the beginning of the book, she is highly self-centered, caring only about her birthday and putting her family at risk by not telling them about the neighbors’ midnight evacuation.
Through her ordeal, she learns a great deal about responsibility, but the lessons are hard-fought. At first, Armani responds to the chaos and hardship with mistrust, as she observes a number of panicked individuals acting in a way that is scary to her. She even observes acts of crime and “looting” which, while justified in some cases, is confusing and scary to a little kid.
The longer Armani battles to keep her family together, the more she realizes that, while caution is warranted sometimes in a crisis, you can’t survive without trusting others. She opens herself to accepting help when the family needs it most. The result is a realistic emotional journey for a child put into an unfathomable position.
Armani must also battle her own sense of guilt, particularly after MeMaw fails to survive in the wake of the floods. (She perishes while the others are asleep). At this point, she learns that the decision to stay actually had little to do with her—another step for Armani in becoming less self-absorbed. She learns that her mother was determined to stay because it was an act of “hope.” In the end, it could be considered an ill-advised act, hopeful or not. Nevertheless, Armani realizes at this moment that the world does not revolve around her. If the family wanted to leave, it would have left, regardless of Armani’s birthday celebration.
Upside-Down in the Middle of Nowhere is an intense character study of a ten-year-old girl, set against the horrifying backdrop of Hurricane Katrina.