Out of Darkness

Out of Darkness

4.07 (3,541 ratings by Goodreads)
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A Michael L. Printz Honor Book 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.

[This] layered tale of color lines, love and struggle in an East Texas oil town is a pit-in-the-stomach family drama that goes down like it should, with pain and fascination, like a mix of sugary medicine and artisanal moonshine.--The New York Times Book Review

Pérez deftly weaves [an] unflinchingly intense narrative....A powerful, layered tale of forbidden love in times of unrelenting racism.―starred, Kirkus Reviews

This book presents a range of human nature, from kindness and love to acts of racial and sexual violence. The work resonates with fear, hope, love, and the importance of memory....Set against the backdrop of an actual historical event, Pérez...gives voice to many long-omitted facets of U.S. history.―starred, School Library Journal
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Product details

  • 12-17
  • Hardback | 408 pages
  • 160 x 236 x 35mm | 740g
  • Minneapolis, United States
  • English
  • Illustrations, unspecified
  • 1467742023
  • 9781467742023
  • 727,013

Review quote

The novels that burn into our minds as young adults often involve horror of some kind. A mere mention of All Quiet on the Western Front or I Am the Cheese, and I'm right back to brooding again in the ocean-deep emotions of my adolescence. What is that urge, the desire to soak in anguish and injustice as we come of age? Whatever it is, Ashley Hope Pérez's new novel, Out of Darkness, fills the need. Her layered tale of color lines, love and struggle in an East Texas oil town is a pit-in-the-stomach family drama that goes down like it should, with pain and fascination, like a mix of sugary medicine and artisanal moonshine. I actually had to close the book at one point to seek respite with Facebook. And puppies.

When I dove back in a few days later, it was hard not to marvel at the book's potency. Pérez, who has spent much of her career teaching, sets her story against the 1937 New London school explosion, the worst school disaster in American history, which killed 294 people. But the blast is only one of this book's horrors, and not the one that hurts the most.

Her story is about race--about gradients and forbidden crossings. Our guide is Naomi, who starts out seeming no more than 13 but who could be as old as 18 (one of the book's distractions is its loosey-goosey approach to age). She's defined as Mexican in the Texas of her era, and though she is bilingual and attractive, she is darker-skinned than her two younger half siblings, Beto and Cari, who have a white father named Henry who has just called them all to New London.

Their mother, Estella, has died. Henry has convinced Naomi's grandparents that he can give all three children a better life in the scrum of an oil boom, with a new school where students receive band instruments, sports uniforms and new books.

Beto and Cari, who are twins, thrive. They can pass as white. Naomi struggles. Though allowed to attend the school, she is just another 'dirty Mexican, ' rebuffed by whites and turned into a housekeeper by Henry.

There is only one person who keeps Naomi from despair: Wash, a black boy who fishes at a bend in the river that the twins adore. Cari, confident and mischievous, and Beto, more contemplative, take to him first. We are meant to believe the twins are too young to notice the racial dynamics around them, though they are old enough to read--a proposition that at times stretches credulity.

Wash, while drawn with charm and verve, also seems a little too ideal; one too many of his apparent flaws turn out to be a virtue. But what works are the relationships between Wash and Naomi and Wash and the twins. Out of Darkness nurtures their connections with approachable prose, letting the characters glide between childhood and all that follows. Naomi and Wash find a private place to work out their emotions and urges.

All of which makes the final third of the book so hard to bear. Naomi and Wash are happy alone, for a spell. But Wash is a charismatic son of strict strivers--his parents have made no secret of their expectation that he go to college--and he cannot fully ignore the racism around him. One of the most ominous scenes occurs when Wash and his father visit New London's white school superintendent with a plan to save money for their struggling school. While Wash speaks up with measured boldness, his father, an otherwise proud man, glares at his son and turns submissive. 'What my son means to say is that we're keen on improving the level of education at New London Colored School, ' he tells the superintendent. 'Sure want to be a credit to the county.'

Given the current experience of race in America, in which black Americans continue to be killed after questioning white authorities or fleeing, the exchange is an acute reminder that race has always been a function of power, as recent books by Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have driven home.

Indeed, escaping from the forces that have shaped the United States for centuries proves impossible for Naomi, for Wash, for the twins and for Henry. The end of the book careers from one threat to another, but the conclusion is never in doubt: New London blows up, shudders and collapses. A tragedy, real and racial, swallows us whole, and lingers.--The New York Times Book Review-- "Newspaper" (11/8/2015 12:00:00 AM)
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Rating details

3,541 ratings
4.07 out of 5 stars
5 41% (1,440)
4 37% (1,300)
3 15% (528)
2 5% (171)
1 3% (102)
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