In Darkness

Book review by
Sally Engelfried, Common Sense Media
In Darkness Book Poster Image
Violent but riveting story of Haiti's past and present.

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Kids say

age 14+
Based on 2 reviews

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Set in Haiti in both the past and present, In Darkness focuses on two important events in the country's history: the 2010 earthquake, and the 1791 slave rebellion led by Toussaint l'Ouverture. Through the memories of Shorty, a boy caught in the rubble of a hospital after the earthquake, and the eyes of Toussaint, the leader of Haiti's first foray into independence, readers will be able to learn much about Haiti. However, it's a lot to absorb for those unfamiliar with either Haiti's history or the bleak present-day situation of the poor and disenfranchised, and readers may feel a little lost at times. In addition to many foreign names and phrases and political and historical background, Lake introduces the voudou mythology and describes ceremonial practices of the religion that invoke the large pantheon of gods.

Positive Messages

It may not be immediately apparent in the face of all the horrors that occur during the two stories in this book, but the overriding message of In Darkness is that you have to hold onto love and try to make the world a better place, even if the situation seems hopeless.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Toussaint l'Ouverture is portrayed as a wise, insightful, and fair leader. At the beginning of the revolution he leads, he instructs his followers not to kill their former masters nor destroy their property, even though they, as former slaves, have received horrible treatment at their masters' hands. Shorty is the first to tell you that he has done a lot of bad things in his life, including murder. Even so, he, too, is insightful and spends the duration of his entrapment under the rubble thinking about his life and what he could have done differently.


At a young age, Shorty sees his father killed by gang members wielding clubs and machetes right in front of his eyes. When he later joins the Route 9 gang that rules one part of the slums of Site Solèy, the violence in his life escalates. He sees many people gunned down, either by a rival gang or government forces, and he is also taught to shoot and kill people at the age of 12. In the other narrative, Toussaint tries to conduct his revolution peacefully whenever possible, but it is a war, and violence is unavoidable.  He sees white men dismember his friend and nail hism to a tree, and he remembers the horrors inflicted on the slaves, including rape and severe beatings.


Shorty mentions that his friend raps about Cadillacs and Cristal (champagne) and dreams of living the life of an American rap star. Shorty finds this laughable in a land where people are so hungry they bake dirt to have something to fill their stomachs.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that the 2013 Printz Award-winning In Darkness is a violent, disturbing novel that's nevertheless fascinating and emotionally powerful. The bleak life of Shorty, who was born in the Haitian slums of Site Solèy and seems to have no hope for a better future, is tempered by the second narrative of the historical figure Toussaint L'Ouverture, who leads the slaves of Haiti to freedom during the 18th century. However, Toussaint's story is a violent one, too, and Shorty is a gang member who has seen and done many awful things.

User Reviews

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Teen, 14 years old Written byWritluvlife August 20, 2016

Very violent, but eye-opening story about the slums in Haiti

I think this is a very eye-opening book about Haiti. There is constant violence throughout the whole story, and shocking statements that the main character mak... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written bylittlebanana June 30, 2019

I felt uncomfortable

The story most likely would have been good except for all the cuss words! I felt so uncomfortable reading it! I don’t hear as many cuss words in the hallways of... Continue reading

What's the story?

Shorty wakes to find himself under a pile of rubble. The last thing he remembers is being in the hospital after he was shot in a gang war, and now he is lying among dead bodies after Haiti's huge earthquake of 2010, hoping someone will find him. Meanwhile, Toussaint has joined a group of slaves in a voudou ceremony to discover who will lead the slaves to freedom; he is shocked to find it is himself. When their spirits are connected through an ancient voudou ritual, Shorty and Toussaint begin to inhabit each other's minds, and their stories unfold in alternating narratives. As Shorty remembers the details of his short life that brought him to the present day and Toussaint's rebellion grows successfully across Haiti, it becomes clear that both are caught up in destinies over which they have little control.

Is it any good?

Though often hard to take because of the brutal violence at almost every turn, IN DARKNESS is an absorbing and haunting story. The alternating settings of past and present keep the reader involved, and Shorty and Toussaint are complex and real. Though Toussaint is an easy character to root for, Shorty is a much more complicated mixture of good and bad, and the way Lake explores his psyche by offering experiences that align with his jaded worldview and yet somehow keep his hope and sense of humor alive is amazing. For readers who have the stomach for the brutality and tragedy of a life lived in Haiti's slums, reading this book will be an ultimately rewarding experience.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the device the author used of having Shorty and Toussaint inhabit each other's minds. How does this help to connect the two stories? Do you think the two characters are at all alike?

  • What are some of the positive qualities Shorty sees in the gang members Biggie and Tintin?

  • How well you think you'd do if you were trapped in rubble after an earthquake? What would you think about as you waited to be rescued?

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