on September 1, 2015
Genres: historical, realistic fiction
Pages: 408 pages
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"This is East Texas, and there's lines. Lines you cross, lines you don't cross. That clear?"
New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.
Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion the worst school disaster in American history as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.
Out of Darkness brings to light often marginalized voices in young adult fiction. Centered on the New London School explosion of 1937, Out of Darkness features protagonists who are racially and culturally diverse and a heartbreaking story that confronts you with the realities of racialized and gendered violence in 1930s Texas (and … also contemporary American culture).
If you are in the mood for some truly excellent historical fiction that will emotionally devastate you, well then, do I have the book for you. I read this book in less than a day and I couldn’t put it down the entire time. I haven’t seen much press around this book yet, which is a bummer, because Out of Darkness is so, so good and also as thoughtful and thought-provoking as hell. It’s one of my favorites of the year so far. (And hey! My list of favorites for 2015 is not going to be exclusively SF/F and romance this year! This book and Jennifer Mathieu’s Devoted have both brought me back to realistic fiction.)
Out of Darkness is set in Texas in the mid-1930s, and focuses on the events leading up to and immediately following the New London School explosion of 1937 – the deadliest school disaster in American history, leaving approximately 300 people dead and many injured. If you, like me, had also never heard of the New London School explosion before reading this, here’s some brief background information (mostly grabbed from Wikipedia and the book). In the midst of the Great Depression, the New London School was shiny and new and super affluent, thanks to the discovery of oil in the area. In 1937, the school began to siphon natural gas off from a gas line (where it was a waste product from oil extraction). There was a gas leak, and since the gas was odorless, it went unrecognized – until a probable spark from woodshop ignited the whole thing and brought the entire school down. Out of the 540 people in the school, only 130 escaped serious injury; around 300 people died.
The New London School explosion is a backdrop for Perez’s exploration of racial identities and dynamics – what the lived experiences of both African- and Latino-Americans were like – in 1930s East Texas. At a time when schools were still racially segregated, the New London School’s student body was primarily white; though, as Pérez explains in the Author’s Note following the novel, it’s likely that at least one of the students killed in the explosion was Hispanic (and potentially encouraged to pass as white).
Pérez’s book starts from this realization – what might bring a Latino family to a community that was mostly otherwise white and African-American? – and gives a fictional account that follows three Mexican-American protagonists (Naomi, and her two younger half-siblings, Beto, and Cari) and a young African-American man (Wash). And this is what I loved most about this book – so much of history is whitewashed, and the novel is dedicated to exploring the stories that might not get told around this tragedy. That is to say, it thinks about how race could have played into the events that produced the New London School explosion as well as the effects that the explosion might have had on local black and Latino communities.
Out of Darkness begins with Wash facing the aftermath of the explosion, and then falls back a few months to when Naomi, Beto, and Cari move to New London, Texas, from San Antonio, to live with Beto and Cari’s biological and heretofore absent father, Henry. Naomi, Beto, and Cari’s mother is long-dead, and they’ve been living with their Latino family in San Antonio. Henry’s a born-again Christian who believes that part of his mission is reconstituting his family in New London; he lures Beto and Cari with the promise of a better education and a better life. Naomi, his step-daughter, comes as part of the bargain in order to take care of her younger siblings, and is also enrolled in New London School as a high school senior. Naomi, Beto, and Cari become friends with Wash, an African-American teenager, and Wash and Naomi share a wonderfully written romance that is in some ways the center of the book. I can be pretty picky about romances, but this one was great – View Spoiler »I especially liked reading about how the four become a family – I’m a big fan of books that think carefully about what binds families together, and this does it « Hide Spoiler – though unfortunately thwarted by a lot of things, including but not limited to Henry, Naomi’s awful stepfather, and the white, Christian community he’s part of.
I liked so, so much about this book – the narrative structure is really interesting, and told through alternative narratives (Naomi, Wash, Cari, Beto, Henry occasionally, and a racist chorus of voices from the New London School, “The Gang”); the book is centered on a historical period I know very little about; it focuses on the lived experiences of non-white characters in that historical period; and is, generally, a pretty great and thoughtful read. (Though again, emotionally devastating. You have been warned.)
I feel like I have probably not done Out of Darkness justice with this review. I finished it this morning and am still speechless about how freaking excellent it is, you all. Go forth and read it? It’s wonderful. I now want to read everything else Ashley Hope Pérez has ever written.
Has anyone else read this yet? Are you going to read this? (You should definitely read this.)
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.