Summary from Goodreads:
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.
A sign in the window of the local diner reads “No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs”, and it sets the tone for the rest of Ashley Hope Pérez’s debut novel, Out of Darkness. Tackling subjects like integrated families, discrimination, interracial romance, and domestic abuse, this isn’t a book for the faint of heart. (Considering this is published by Carolrhoda Lab, who put out the unforgettably brutal Drowning Instinct, this should probably come as no surprise.) Pleasant, light reading this book might not be, yet the story Pérez tells is nevertheless powerful and worth paying attention to.
The historical backdrop for Out of Darkness is the 1937 school explosion in New London, Texas. The explosion killed nearly 300 people and is the deadliest school disaster in US history. Interestingly, I hadn’t heard of it until picking up this book. What’s really remarkable about the novel, though, is how the author has taken a single tragedy and created a richly woven, dynamic story to give it a human angle. We can read the facts about disasters until we’re blue in the face, but when you turn it into a story with emotional appeal, it becomes that much more impactful.
And even without the explosion, this book tells an excellent story. It is essentially a love story between a (relatively) well-off black boy, Wash, and an orphaned Mexican girl, Naomi. I was personally slow to warm up to both of these characters, but by the end I was pretty invested in their Happily Ever After. Or lack of one, I suppose. My favorite character, though, was Naomi’s younger brother, Beto, whose conflict with his “feminine” nature and his aggressive white father’s expectations were subtly interwoven into the narrative. It added another layer to the repeated themes of societal pressure and bigotry that Out of Darkness deals with.
Another thing I was impressed with was how mature Pérez was in dealing with subject matter. This is, obviously, a YA book, but it isn’t one that treats its intended audience like idiots or people who must be shielded from realities. Just the sexual content alone had me impressed. Naomi experiences sexual abuse from her step-father and sex-related bullying from her white classmates (all Mexicans being dirty and promiscuous, after all). Though such scenes are sometimes difficult to read, I always appreciate an author who tackles them head on, instead of skirting around the issue. And more importantly, the author also portrays positive sexual experiences alongside the negative ones. Books that explicitly detail a rape but fade to black during consensual sex don’t help anyone, in my opinion. Out of Darkness, happily, is not one of those books.
All in all, I wouldn’t say I liked this book or that it was one of the best books I’ve read. However, Ashley Hope Pérez did an excellent job in creating an emotionally intense, historically informed story that touches on some themes and issues that the average YA novel steers clear of. Out of Darkness is a serious book that possibly will make you angry-cry, but it’s worth it.
- Black and Mexican (and mixed-race) main cast, takes place in segregated 1930s Texas.
- Sex positive—scenes of masturbation and oral sex. Also vintage condoms!
- Protagonists are from low-income families.