Carolrhoda Lab TM, 2015
On March 18, 1937, a natural gas leak led to a deadly explosion and collapse of the all-white school in New London, a town in East Texas. Ashley Hope Pérez, who grew up nearby, mined her grandmother’s recollections, archives, and historical narratives to build a complex and memorable novel around this event, a novel that at its core explores love across hard racial lines.
Seventeen-year-old Naomi Vargas, now called Naomi Smith, is a misfit in New London—the dark-complexioned daughter of Mexican-American parents. Shortly after she was born, her father drowned and her mother married a handsome Anglo oil field worker. Henry Smith, though, proved to be a demanding and troubled husband, and when his new wife died after bearing twins Beto and Cari, Henry left the three children with their abuelos in San Antonio. But now sober and an evangelical Christian, he has brought the family to East Texas where they must follow the rules to fit into the white side of a Jim Crow society. They must also renounce their Mexican heritage. Here, Naomi prepares her half-siblings for school:
“That’s enough sass,” Naomi said when they caught up to her. “Let’s hear the rules.”
With a sigh, Cari said, “The main thing is, we don’t talk Spanish in the street or at school or anywhere. Which is stupid, if you ask me.”
“All right, then,” Naomi said. “Just remember. And what else?”
“We call Henry ‘Daddy,’” Cari said. She frowned. “And what about you? Do you have to even though he’s not your daddy?”
“Me, too, and you know it,” Naomi said. She crossed her arms over her chest.
Rule following goes by the wayside when handsome Black teenager Wash Fuller (who is not allowed to attend the Consolidated School but goes to the inferior Colored School, with shorter hours, a shorter school year, and cast off supplies) finds Naomi hiding from bullies in a tree and she introduces him to her seven-year-old half-siblings. Beto and Cari enjoy exploring the piney woods and fishing for their supper with Wash, and Naomi faces down her anxiety about sex—the result of Henry’s sexual abuse of her while her mother was dying—to become intimate with him.
But Henry, who has started drinking again, has designs on Naomi, who is now old enough to legally replace her mother in the marital bed. Surprisingly, most of the town, including the pastor and the Smiths’ churchgoing neighbors, think that such a union is acceptable—certainly far more acceptable to them than a loving, consensual relationship with peers of different races. It is in this volatile racial and sexual mix that the explosion happens.
Pérez’s eloquent third-person omniscient narrative focuses on Naomi, Wash, Beto, Henry, and The Gang, the group of white students who enforce the color line and gossip about Naomi’s beauty and desirability as they stereotype and torment her. Using the third person allows her to comment on her characters whose lives take on the dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy, and to immerse the reader in a richly drawn setting that is itself a character.
They had been happy for a time, before the rules found them. Before the terrible price was exacted for their transgressions. For the crossing of lines. For friendship, for love.
Ultimately, this powerful novel asks: What are we willing to sacrifice for friendship and love? For defying an unjust society? For working to bring about racial justice? Out of the Darkness is highly recommended.
An earlier version of this review first appeared in The Pirate Tree (thepiratetree.com). We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.
Editor’s note: Toward the beginning of Out of Darkness, a classmate explains to Naomi his position at the bottom of the town’s social hierarchy: “Nah, I’m a low man on the totem pole.” Debbie Reese, founder and editor of American Indians in Children’s Literature, (https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/) noted this culturally problematic term and called it to the author’s attention. Rather than being defensive, the author thanked Debbie and, in the next printing (paperback), author and editor agreed to replace this line with: “Nah, no suck luck.”