Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Out Of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez: review and blog tour

If you haven't read a book by Ashley Hope Pérez, you are missing a unique and empowering voice in young adult fiction. The author's work for Teach for America Corps inspired her debut novel, What Can't Wait. Her gritty sophomore novel, The Knife and The Butterfly, explored the consequences of gang violence.

Pérez's third novel, Out of Darkness features a clandestine romance which dares to cross the racial divide of 1930's Texas. Inspired by the most deadly school disaster in American history, this provocative novel gives voice to those whose voices were silenced and whose histories were unjustly revised. Following my review, the author explains why she chose to write this historical novel.

In Out of Darkness seventeen-year-old Naomi moves with her half siblings to her stepfather's new home in an oil drilling settlement town. When their Mexican-American mother died in childbirth seven years earlier, Naomi became the surrogate mother to the twins. Now Naomi must balance the demands of being the only Mexican-American at her high school with keeping house for her Caucasian stepfather, whom she despises.
 A sign at the town diner: "No Negroes, Mexican or dogs." 
Beautiful Naomi becomes the object of desire and of racial prejudice. She finds secret pleasure with Wash, an intelligent boy who is a senior at the all black school in a segregated town. They imagine a future together with the twins, free from persecution. The writing is as lush and as beautiful as the landscape:
"It was getting late, but time seemed to stretch like taffy. The pines stood out dark against the pinks and oranges creeping across the sky, and a breeze stirred around her. She found herself walking to their spot at the river. It was not a usual meeting time for them, but she couldn't help hoping."
The East Texas woods of the author's childhood, which feature in the narrative.

After an explosive and confusing start, the narrative down-shifts to an unrushed pace, building tension slowly and allowing for in depth character development. The chapters are told from multiple points of view: Naomi, her Born Again stepfather, her seven-year-old half brother and her boyfriend Wash. Their star-crossed romance is realistically rendered with adolescent lust and idealistic love. The pace accelerates to a page-turner ending that left me stunned and shattered. Although this tragic story was set in the 1930s, the central theme of racism vs. the power of love still feels relevant today.

Out of Darkness could have been published as literary historical fiction for adults. Since this novel includes sexual abuse, pedophilia and graphic violence, I would only recommend it to mature teens and to adults who aren't afraid to explore the dark side of human nature. Both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal gave this soon to be released book starred reviews. Out of Darkness is Pérez's strongest young adult novel so far and shows a maturity of voice, technique and vision. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Guest Post from Ashley Hope Pérez:
Looking to the Margins of History
Author Ashley Hope Pérez

Since What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly explore the lives of contemporary Latina/o teenagers, it may surprise readers to learn that my third novel, Out of Darkness, is set in 1937 and takes a historical event--the school explosion in New London, Texas—as a backdrop for the story. In fact, though, Out of Darkness extends my interest in untold stories by excavating experiences from the margins of history in the part of Texas where I grew up. 

Hollow Oak Tree by Gustave Le Gay:
similar to Naomi & Wash's secret meeting spot
The woods of Naomi and Wash’s secret meetings are the woods of my childhood, and the memorial to the victims of the 1937 New London school explosion was part of the landscape I saw when I rode to work with my father during the summer. Even then, I knew something terrible had happened to the schoolchildren in New London, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of the disaster. The New London school explosion killed one in four of the town’s white children for a death toll of nearly three hundred. Unsurprisingly, the impact of the school disaster on the white community has been the focus of all existing accounts. From the start of my research, though, I knew I wanted to explore what the event might have meant for others, especially people of color.

In 1937, the Depression still had most of the U.S. in a chokehold. But thanks to revenues from oil extraction, the New London school had extraordinary resources: chemistry labs, foreign language classes, band uniforms and instruments for all children, suites of sewing machines for home economics, and the first electric lights on a high school football stadium. Some newspapers called New London’s school “the richest rural school in America,” and I wondered what it would have been like to behold that bounty from the outside, to have one’s children spared from the explosion because they hadn’t been allowed into the school in the first place. This was the situation, of course, for the African American community, whose children were required to attend a grossly under-resourced “colored” school in the area.

Aftermath of the 1937 New London School Explosion
 I also wondered if there were any Mexican Americans living in East Texas at the time of the explosion. Reading oral histories in East Texas archives and doing my own interviews yielded only one mention of a gentleman from a nearby town whom the interviewees called “Tamale Joe.” Still, because the promise of oil field jobs in East Texas led to a significant influx of people from all over the state and country, it seemed plausible to me that other Mexican American families might have come to the area at least during the decade of the oil boom. And then I came across the name “Juanita Herron” among the list of the children who had died in the explosion. I looked up her records with the funeral house that handled her body, and her parents listed her race as “white.” Still, it was common for Mexican Americans in Texas to play down their heritage to escape discrimination, much as Henry (Naomi’s stepfather in Out of Darkness) encourages Naomi and her siblings to do in the novel. As I studied Juanita’s photograph, I began to imagine the combination of circumstances that might have led to a Mexican American child enrolling in the New London school. I imagined a family living in San Antonio, where segregation had a third dimension, so-called “Mexican” schools for Hispanic children. I imagined a family moving to East Texas, where there were no Mexican schools, in hopes of a better life and education for bright children. (These exceptionally smart children became Naomi’s twin brother and sister.)

While there are remarkable and redemptive aspects to life and community in New London as I portray it in my Out of Darkness, the novel also sheds a stark light on the myriad expressions of racism in segregated communities. The novel is tragic, but it also gives readers the chance to see what novelist Sharon Flake describes as “hope in hard places.” Out of Darkness lends urgency to our continued work for a better, more just future where all kinds of love can take root.

Reviewer's Disclosure: the author offered me a free digital galley via netgalley so that I could participate in the book's blog tour; I was not compensated for my review. At my request, Pérez explained why she chose to write an historical novel after two contemporary novels. Photos were supplied by the author. Carolrhoda Lab will release Out of Darkness in hardcover on September 1, 2015. For more of my reviews of Pérez's books, follow the links in the opening paragraph.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Marmalade Skies in Harpswell, Maine

I took this unfiltered DSLR photograph while dining outside Estes Lobster House at sunset.
I'm taking a two week blog vacation to spend time with my family. Next post Wednesday August 26th.

Happy summer!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Botanical Illustrations of Native Maine Medicinal Plants

Gemma at Pettengill Farm on the Harraseeket River in Freeport, Maine

At my daughter's school, Waynflete seniors research a month long independent project. Gemma combined her love of art, nature and wilderness survival for her project. She did the first drawing (the Balsam Fir) at Chewonki Semester School junior year, which was her inspiration.

It was a fun bonding experience to accompany my daughter into the woods this May. I was her location scout and guide, but she identified all the plants herself and researched their medicinal uses now and historically. I learned a lot from her.

One of the highlights was an overnight trip to Monhegan Island, ten miles out to sea, but most samples were collected within a half hour drive from home. Some, like the Mountain Ash, grow in the old growth forest behind our house. We also explored the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay Harbor.

I was impressed by Gemma's ability to render these complex plants and trees with botanical accuracy and artistic acumen. Each drawing took five or six hours to sketch in pencil and then ink. With the help of her art teacher, the results were bound into pamphlets for her peers. In her powerpoint presentation, Gemma included maps and DSLR photos too. She would make a fine teacher/professor some day. I love how we share a passion for art and nature.

The American Mountain Ash has berries rich in vitamin C, 
which have been used to treat kidney disease, diabetes, arthritis and diarrhea.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set A Watchman is a mediocre book on its own, but it sheds light on the creation of To Kill a Mockingbird. I'd advise reading this found manuscript if you are interested in the writing process and in historical accuracy. There are valid reasons not to read: possible elder exploitation of the blind/deaf author and ruining your loving memory of Atticus Finch. Idealistic readers beware.

As a writer myself, I was curios about Harper Lee's process and read Watchman as a first draft. This "new" book is unevenly paced, anecdotal, preachy and slow to launch. The first 100 pages are mostly character sketches, but it was still a pleasure to meet Scout as a 26-year-old woman. She continues to be a delightful, quirky character. In the early chapters Scout is torn between looking after her ailing father and marrying her childhood sweetheart in Alabama versus going back to her independent life in New York City.

I loved this line about her small town: "If you did not want much, there was plenty."

The central themes of racism and loss of innocence didn't launch until page 101 of this 278 page novel. In a narrative jolt, Scout makes a shocking discovery that destroys her trust in the men she loves and rocks all her beliefs. Atticus the shining knight is tarnished nearly beyond recognition. Mockingbird seems like a fairy tale by comparison.

Although painful to accept, the Watchman is more historically accurate. The racist opponents to segregation in the South included well educated men, like the fictional Atticus, who otherwise seemed to be prime examples of moral integrity. Atticus's racism is disguised as "Jeffersonian Democracy" and benevolent paternalism. Scout, who was raised "color blind" by a black maid and a white father, believes in equal rights for all. The narrative suspense rests on this feud of ideology in one family. I stayed up until dawn finishing the Watchman. This nauseating debate still feels relevant. Two weeks ago the Confederate flag was still flying at South Carolina's capitol. Racial inequities persist.

The joy of reading Watchman came from uncovering the genesis of Mockingbird. The famous climatic Mockingbird trial is summarized as backstory, and there are delightful childhood flashbacks. I can imagine the sage editor, mining these rough gems and helping the author polish them into a masterpiece. It encouraged me as a writer to see that even Harper Lee struggled in her first draft. There are so many tales than can be told. Genius is in finding the heart of the story.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Union Street Bakery, Brunswick, Maine

Although The Union Street Bakery and Cake Shop only opened a few weeks ago, it's such a perfect match for my neighborhood that it feels like it has always been here. The owner, Sandra Holland, has many years of experience as a caterer, baker and business woman. She also has an Associates Degree from RISD in Culinary Arts with a focus on pastry. When I first moved to Brunswick, Sandy was running the Humble Gourmet, a similar bakery/sandwich shop but in a less hospitable location. Her new venture is located on a quiet, tree-lined side street near the public library and in easy walking distance to everything in Brunswick, including my house.

The Union Street Bakery: 40 Union St, Brunswick, Maine
Entering the Union Street Bakery feels like visiting an old friend's home with the comfy chairs, local art and sunny window nooks. Refreshing breezes flow through windows on three sides, carrying the scent of baking bread and brewing coffee from the open kitchen. Cat Stevens played timeless favorites. I had the perfect lunch: toasted turkey BLT with avocado, a regular on the menu with other sandwiches, soup, quiche, salad, cookies and cupcakes.

After a leisurely lunch, Henry and I ordered a gluten free birthday cake for our daughter. Sandy was amazed to hear that our little girl with Shirley Temple curls could be turning eighteen and heading to college. Years ago, we'd carpooled our sons to Audubon summer day camp.

Sandra Holland & her crew
Photo curtesy Union Street Bakery
I'm so pleased to see Sandy back at what she does best: making our town feel like a neighborhood and baking the best cakes ever. My favorite is her tart but moist lemon cake, and I'm not usually a cake lover. Her carrot cake is really good too and is available in an almond flour version for those on gluten free diets. My daughter was put on a gluten free diet recently for health reasons, and it's a relief to find local businesses catering to her needs. I'm sure I'll be back on other summer days with my daughter and during the long winter with friends. It's so cozy and warm.

After lunch, I walked a couple blocks to the Gulf of Maine Bookstore to buy two copies of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, one for me and one for my daughter. She loved To Kill a Mockingbird so much, she named our dog Scout. I'm planning to post my impressions of this controversial lost-manuscript-found-book next week. Who else is reading it (no spoilers please)? You can read/listen to a free sample posted by The Guardian here. If I'm not online, I'm probably reading in my hammock.

Daisies in Pickard Fields, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Celebrating 25 Years of Marriage: a British-American Romance

Henry and Sarah Laurence
I was in college when my future husband met me by chance. After moving into off campus housing, my phone stopped working. This was years before cell phones so I knocked on a random door to test my landline in a neighbor’s outlet. Henry had a cute accent and gorgeous green eyes, but best of all, he made me laugh. “Get rid of the phone and have a beer,” were his first words to me. His British co-pats were flipping pancakes in celebration of Shrove Tuesday, a holiday new to me. I was charmed into accepting his invitation, even though I didn't usually drink on school nights.

Henry claimed it was love at first sight, but I was skeptical. I was wearing glasses with my hair in a ponytail and that doing-my-laundry outfit. When I ran into Henry the next day, he didn't recognize me at first. I groaned about a quiz on the countries, capitals and rivers of Africa. Henry sketched a map on a napkin. Then he asked me out on a date that weekend: sushi and a James Joyce movie.

A date? Nobody at college went on real dates. Henry showed up with flowers one day and with chocolates on another. He recited Shakespeare by heart, truly enjoyed dancing and never left the house without an umbrella. I felt like a character in a Jane Austen novel.

In Goring-on-Thames, England with Henry before my first white tie ball at Oxford University. Photo by Nicola Laurence.

When Henry proposed three weeks after we met, I nearly broke up with him. At barely twenty-one, I was looking for a boyfriend, not a husband. Henry was only at Harvard for one term, studying Japanese political economy. In June he had to return to his job at the Bank of Tokyo in London. I had applied to summer internships in Alaska, Australia and England. With a gentle nudge, I chose the anti-whaling campaign at Greenpeace's international headquarters in London.

Henry kept proposing under rainbows, in rose gardens and along the Thames Rivers. He tried to trick me with triple negatives: "Is it not true that you would not never marry me?" He was irresistible. Some people thought we were crazy, but for an international relationship to work, we needed a big commitment. A two year engagement gave us plenty of time to get to know each other better.

With my Dalton School friends in New York Harbor aboard the DeWitt Clinton.

I was the first of my friends to become engaged so I was clueless about weddings. My Jewish father had married my Episcopalian mother in a tiny civil ceremony. Henry was Anglican, but I didn't want to deny half of my heritage with a church wedding and we both wanted to keep it small and intimate.

Since Henry loved crew and sailing and his father had served in the merchant navy, my dad floated the idea of a ship captain performing the ceremony. We all loved the concept.

Henry below deck with Jenny and Tim Moore from London. Photo by my cousin Peter Nohrnberg.

Unfortunately a captain-officiated wedding would require being two miles out to sea in international waters. Friends and family were already traveling to New York from England, Japan and Israel.

Instead, we brought a Unitarian minister on board the DeWitt Clinton, who combined Old and New Testament readings with Shakespeare and a ceremonial breaking of a wine glass. We were wed in New York Harbor twenty-five years ago...or rather we would have been if we hadn't forgotten the marriage license! That was corrected dockside before we left for our honeymoon.

Henry and his father before the World Trade Center. Photo by Peter Nohrnberg.

In twenty five years the world has changed radically. I never thought our wedding album would become a memorial to the fallen Twin Towers. I'd sooner remember them like this, with happy memories.

We started a family early so that now in my forties, I'm amazed to find myself an empty nester. With time to date each other once again, I'm pleased that we haven't lost our special connection. Henry challenges me intellectually, and he still makes me laugh. Twenty-five long-stem roses and dinner out in Portland proved that romance didn't wilt over time.

There are more rainbows than ever before. The best anniversary gift of all was the Supreme Court ruling on Obergefell vs. Hodge, granting the right of marriage to same sex couples in all of the United States. I wish these newly wed couples as much love and happiness as we have shared over the years.
Cheers and mazel tov!

Photo credits: unlabeled wedding photos by Carol A. Turrentine. Family photo in Freeport, Maine by Annie Rose. Double rainbow photo in New Hampshire by me.