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.


Amanda Summer said...

Compelling story with lyrical writing, a winning combo - wonderful review, Sarah.

troutbirder said...

Great review and background on a vital and current topic. I had no knowledge of the disaster as my knowledge of Texas history is largely limited to the much overdrawn and fictional accounts of the heroic stand at the "Alamo"

Rose said...

I don't usually read young adult fiction, as you know, Sarah, but I am going to put this one on my to-read list. I had never heard of this explosion, so that intrigues me. But even more intriguing is Perez' point of view and the effects of racism in this part of the country during that time. Great review!

thecuecard said...

I liked Ashley's explanation. Wow that's great that she used the devastating event as a backdrop. Her research and imagination drawing from it sound fascinating. I didn't have any knowledge of that explosion and I had to look up where New London, Texas is. But now I know. Thanks for educating me Ashley! Your book sounds dark but I will look for it.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Your YA reviews are so tempting.
I just may have to add this one to my stack!

tina said...

It sounds like a very real and tough book.

Barrie said...

I'll definitely read this. I loved both the review and the author's notes.

Sarah Laurence said...

All, thanks for considering this book as adult readers. I'd love to hear your reactions.

cynthia said...

I did not know about the New London explosion before reading this post--fascinating to read your review and then how Ashley found her subject. Drawn to the idea of exploring hope in hard places.

Bee said...

Despite being a native Texan, I've never heard of New London -- or the explosion there! I know plenty about racism in Texas, though. My father declined a job at a law firm in East Texas in the 1970s because he found the racist attitudes unbearable. I hope this book is successful in finding an audience because it sounds fascinating.