“This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”
New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Smith and Wash Fullerton 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 there are some forces even the most determined color lines cannot resist. And sometimes all it takes is an explosion.
Tell Me More: Finding quiet novels and being able to espouse them to an audience is one of the most enjoyable experiences of being a blogger. Out of Darkness is not only a quiet, understated novel, but probably one of the most important books a reader could pick up this year.
The New London school explosion was an unfamiliar event to me, even after having studied U.S. History growing up, and I appreciated that Ashley Hope Pérez chose to highlight this tragedy and its effect on the Texas community to today’s young readers. Some of the children who died on March 18, 1937 were children of black and Hispanic parents, migrant men and women who had come to work in the mines and make a better life for their kids.
Naomi Smith, one of the protagonists of Pérez’s novel, is a Hispanic migrant child, still reeling from the death of her mother several years earlier. At the beginning of the book, she’s been uprooted, along with her younger twin siblings, from a life in San Antonio with her grandparents. Her stepfather–the twins’ biological father–has had a change of heart, but Naomi bears an instinctive distrust towards him, one that leads to some horrific revelations later in the story. Pérez doesn’t shy away from that horror, but neither does she dwell on it to the detriment of Naomi’s growth as a character. We get to know Naomi and her small hopes and the things that draw her to Wash both as a friend and someone she might grow to love.
Wash Fullerton might be more settled in New London than Naomi, but in 1937, he remains an outsider due to his black skin. His family is far more supportive, encouraging him to work hard and go to college, as his father did, and by all accounts, Wash is definitely on his way to a bright future. Much like the moon is drawn to the Earth, however, Wash is drawn to Naomi. It’s a relationship of potential more than anything else: the potential and hope they see in each other, and the potential of what they could be together.
It’s tempting to compare New London to Verona, and Wash and Naomi to Shakespeare’s tragic young lovers Romeo and Juliet, but Pérez gives her readers a far more nuanced backdrop. Her recreation of New London in 1937 is heavy on atmosphere and detail, and it enlivens Naomi’s internal struggles, and Wash’s determination. Pérez also utilizes several points-of-view to provide a true range of perspectives, and encourage the reader to invest emotionally in the characters. It never felt like a gimmick, because each character got a fair amount of pages to feel real, and keep the story moving forward.
The Final Say: Ashley Hope Pérez has created a story that feels palpably real and inevitable in its emotional and historical tragedy, without ever cheapening its impact. Out of Darkness is a must-read for anyone who believes in the power of books to change lives.
Ashley Hope Pérez teaches world literature at Ohio State University. She lives with her husband and their son. Out of Darkness is her third YA novel.