Warning: this review thoroughly spoils the plot, especially the ending. Additionally this review discusses the portrayal of racial and sexual violence.
After I finished reading Out of Darkness, I started thinking about the different ways authors writing historical fiction construct narratives rooted in historic realities of violence and oppression. Specifically, how do authors do justice to that pain? Does there exist a point of “too much”? If so, at what point does a story reach it? Can happy endings exist in stories rooted in racial and/or sexual violence, or do they demean the real lives of those who either lived through or died from it? Alternately, does the definition of a happy ending change when writing stories about pain, suffering, and loss? Out of violent, unjustified crimes against innocent people, is there anything to salvage? Anything that has the slightest chance of creating a better world?
After reading the book’s synopsis—a budding romance between teenagers Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller, a Mexican American girl and an African American boy, set in 1937 in East Texas against the backdrop of the Depression, Jim Crow laws, Texas’ own tripartite system of segregation between whites, blacks, and Latinos, and the New London school explosion, the deadliest school disaster in American history—I went into Out of Darkness knowing that either Wash or Naomi, or both of them, would be dead by the book’s end. Their deaths felt inevitable, given the parameters established regarding the historical time period and setting, the characters who populated the book, and the juxtaposition of an interracial romance against a devastating tragedy involving the death of white children.
Ashley Hope Pérez wrote in her Author’s Note for Out of Darkness that the work of this book was to “bring to light experiences and narratives that might otherwise go unacknowledged,” no matter how painful or shameful. In the case of Out of Darkness, these experiences include explicit racism and racial violence, parental abuse, sexual abuse, and reinforcement of gender roles and expectations, all of which, Pérez takes the time her readers, are rooted in historical precedence. I knew from the beginning that this interracial romantic relationship could not and would not end happily, because from a historical perspective, the story would be rendered unbelievable. Which is why I asked myself, when writing historical fiction, and setting and centering a story amidst the oppression and violence present in the time, in what ways can authors best structure their stories—the emotional arc and that that of the characters—to do justice to that history? From a narrative perspective,Out of Darknessreads like a Greek tragedy from the very beginning. The book opens in media res with the town of New London experiencing the explosion, giving the reader a brief taste of disaster before skipping backwards in times eight months to start the story proper.
Naomi and her younger twin siblings Beto and Cari have just moved to New London to live with Henry, the twins’ father and Naomi’s stepfather, and also white. More than anything, Naomi wishes she and the twins could have stayed in San Antonio with their grandparents. When Henry was married to Naomi and the twins’ mother Estella, he repeatedly molested Naomi after Estella grew weak from multiple miscarriages. When Estella died soon after giving birth to Beto and Cari, Henry ran off, and Naomi and the twins went to live with their grandparents. Now seven years later, Henry wants them back. He says he’s owned up to his past mistakes, and wants to be a father to his children. He can provide for them with his job in the oil fields. Beto and Cari can have a better education attending the New London school, bursting with modern amenities bought and payed for with oil money. He promises Naomi he won’t touch her again. Naomi doesn’t trust Henry, but with her grandparents insisting they go, she has no choice but to follow the twins and try to carve out a safe space for her and the twins while living in an all-white town.
Meanwhile Wash lives on the opposite side of New London in the “colored” section known as Egypt Town. Wash’s family is comparatively more educated and well-off than their neighbors—both of Wash’s parents attended the Tuskegee Institute, and Wash is expected to follow in their footsteps. Naomi and Wash are first brought together by Beto and Cari, who quickly adopt Wash as their best friend. Naomi’s moments with him and the twins are her few times of happiness amidst her unhappy and increasingly dangerous situation at home, and from Naomi’s time alone with Wash, a romance takes root.
To be clear, >Out of Darknessis primarily Naomi’s story, and Wash’s characterization does get pushed to the back burner as a result. When he’s with Naomi, he feels and acts too perfect; only when he’s with his family does he gain more nuance as Wash’s future and tensions surrounding the need for respectability politics become part of the conversation. Naomi and Wash’s actual romantic connection feels all-too familiar and unremarkable (although I appreciate that both Wash and Naomi are relatively comfortable interacting sexually with their own and each other’s bodies.) The reason the romance kept my attention was because of what its presence meant for Naomi’s happiness (and also her safety). Additionally, the romances’ progression served as the countdown that brought the school explosion closer and closer into view.
In pOut of Darkness, the New London explosion becomes the catalyst for an uninterrupted chain of disasters, fulfilling the narrative’s predetermined tragic arc. Cari, Naomi’s younger sister and Beto’s twin, is dead, and so are over two hundred other children. The entire town is numb with shock and pain. People want something to blame. Someone. They need someone to be responsible. They need someone to pay. They can’t touch the oilmen responsible for switching the school’s heating to cheaper bleed-off gas that caused the explosion. But they can blame Wash, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The story’s climax is where the story’s tragedy reaches its apex. Wash and his family escape being lynched, and he and Naomi and Beto are about to leave New London when Henry finds them in the middle of a field, furious and blaming Naomi and Wash for the disintegration of his family. Henry forces seven-year-old Beto to tie Wash to a tree, has the two of them watch as he rapes Naomi, and then beats Wash to within an inch of his life. Henry then gives Beto the shotgun, telling him to kill Wash or he will shoot Naomi with his pistol. Beto can’t and won’t, and Henry shoots and kills both her and Wash. At that point, Beto shoots Henry, killing him too.
After reading all that and getting metaphorically repeatedly kicked in the ribs, I asked myself whether Pérez could have written Naomi and Wash’s endings differently while still fulfilling her intention of shedding light on painful narratives. Could Wash have escaped with his life? Could Naomi not have been raped by her stepfather? Or would that have been a disservice to the narratives Pérez wanted to acknowledge?
It’s Naomi’s rape that especially gets at me. After being molested by her stepfather and later forced to live with him a second time, losing her mother in childbirth and her sister in the explosion, and daring to hope for escaping and starting a new life with Wash, to then have Henry rape when she had tried so hard to prevent that from ever happening—it was almost too much. And yet it wasn’t. The rape didn’t feel exploitative or gratuitous. It felt like the culmination of Henry’s need to possess Naomi in order to have the perfect life and family he thinks he can then have, and to enforce racial boundaries to reassert his own supposedly-inherent superiority in the face of his own failings. In Henry’s mind, he has the right to punish Naomi for her racial and sexual transgressions, and to punish Beto by forcing him to be complicit in Wash’s beating for preferring Wash’s friendship over that of his own father.
When characters have already been through so much pain already, it feels like they deserve to end the story with at least a chance at happiness, and it feels even more unfair when they don’t get one. But in history, as well as today, black men are blamed and murdered for crimes they never committed. Women are raped by family members and trapped in abusive circumstances due to unavoidable factors they can’t erase or ignore. In these cases, there are no happy endings. They are tragedies, but they don’t happen for no reason. Naomi’s rape, her and Wash’s death, and Beto’s “causing” it to happen by refusing to shoot his best friend—that entire scene could not have happened without the historical context of race and racism from which Naomi, Wash, Beto, and Henry’s relationships toward each other and the world were given shape and reinforced.
After the violence occurs, the narrative isn’t over—the people who are left have to pick up the pieces and find a way to make sense of what happened. The narrative continues to play. Just as Out of Darkness opens just as the explosion happens, it ends with Beto, now fully-grown, about to start writing his own narrative of what happened to Naomi and Wash, an account that will rip apart the false narrative spun by the newspapers about what happened to his family. It’s incredibly fitting that Beto undertakes the very same task as Ashley Hope Pérez, to reshape historical memory and shed light on narratives that were obscured and erased and forgotten. The book opened with a county-wide tragedy; it’s therefore appropriate that it ends with Beto honoring a more personal tragedy, one that encapsulated all the tensions surrounding racial identity, segregation, class divide, sex, family, gender, and religion in New London, Texas.
And right in the very last paragraph, for one perfect moment, Pérez breaks the fourth wall to deliver this line:
“[Beto] needs you, reader. All he asks is that you take the story up and carry it for a while.”
If that isn’t a beautiful line evocative of Hamilton’s “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” I don’t know what is.
Out of Darkness is a an exceptionally purposeful novel in its writing, not just with regards to Pérez’s intentions in writing this particular story and her thoughtful, complex depiction of historical settings, events, social norms, and attitudes, but also in how she juxtaposes Naomi’s uneasy, painful situation with moments of real joy, happiness, and laughter. These moments are almost entirely those she shares with Wash, with Cari and Beto, and with the three of them together. These latter moments are the times where the four of them feel like their own family, and they are all the more precious in a novel that tackles historically painful narratives. Again in her Author’s Note, Ashley Hope Pérez says it best: “I have tried to balance the heartbreak, cruelty, and ignorance of my characters world with a profound attention to the forms of kindness and connection that are also possible in it.”
Out of Darkness is both Ashley Hope Pérez’s third YA novel and the third book of hers I’ve read. It is far and beyond the best she’s written so far—the book’s recently-awarded Printz Honor is all the proof needed. After this book, Ashley Hope Pérez is an author whose books I am now always going to read.