Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez. Carolrhoda LAB. 2015. Printz Honor Book. Library copy.
The Plot: March 1938. Wash Fuller is working, thinking of his girl, of their plans of a life together. Then the earth shakes and everything changes: the New London school has blown up, and he runs to where she may be.
The book then flashes back to 1937, when Naomi moves with her two half siblings to New London in East Texas to live with her stepfather and to use his last name, Smith, discarding her own name of "Vargas" to pass (or pretend to pass) as white, not Mexican.
And she meets Wash, an African American teenager who offers friendship and love. He's not acceptable to her stepfather, because of his color -- and because her stepfather Henry looks at Naomi and sees her dead mother, Estella. And wants her, like he wanted her mother.
Race, abuse, sex, lust, love, all come crashing together, against the backdrop of the worst school disaster in US history. And that time of tragedy and loss is used by some as justification to inflict even more horror.
The Good: This is an excellent book. Out of Darkness had been on my short list of books I wanted to read, and the Printz Honor nod pushed it to the top of the pile. Which, of course, is the value of awards like the Printz. Well, that, and Bookshelves of Doom's in-person booktalk that began with "school disaster" and had me going "sold!". (Her longer review is at Kirkus.) (Also, I had thought the biggest school disaster was the Our Lady of Angels fire, so I was intrigued to find out more about the New London school explosion.)
Out of Darkness is about Naomi, who is faced with impossible choices. She and her siblings have lived with her grandparents, but they are getting older, they have suffered losses because of the depression, and they also know that their grandchildren will have a better educational future with their white father. Naomi refuses to leave her siblings, wanting to protect them and take care of them, in part because of her own memories of what her stepfather, Henry, did to her. Henry may say he's found religion and God and been baptized and born again, and given up alcohol and women, but Naomi doesn't believe it -- in part because what he did to her remains and is real. Saying "I'm saved!" doesn't change that.
Unlike her younger siblings, who are pale like their father, Naomi is dark like her mother and her own father. Her white classmates realize it; the local store keeper refuses to allow her into the store; and Wash assumes at first that she is African American, like he is. Prejudices and racism run through the book, and that is part of the heartbreak of reading the book. Wash's parents are both college educated, and push their own children to want education, yet at the same time teach their son the safe ways to act and speak to whites. Wash doesn't like it, pushes against it, and the tragedy of the book, the times, of Wash and Naomi is that there is no safe way to act to stop another's hatred and violence. Such "safety" is an illusion, at best.
I'll be honest: the ending of the book gutted me. You think it's the explosion and all those dead children, and the bits of those dead children. And yes, that is terrible. (And not to be flippant, but disasters like this and the Our Lady of Angels fire is just proof that yes, building codes and government regulations are necessary.) But the explosion is the result of lack of regulations because people don't accept that yes, disaster can happen without safety rules. The tragedy at the end of the book -- that is the result of hate, of hate that society encourages, and allows. Safety rules about gas lines and fire escapes may have lessened school disasters; but hatred and prejudice and racism, that is unchecked and even encouraged, are still here.
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