Out of Darkness

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Out of Darkness Book Poster Image
Beautifully written look at racism and love in 1930s Texas.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Readers will learn about a historical event -- the disastrous 1937 school explosion in the oil town of New London, Texas, that killed nearly 300. Although the characters are fictional, the actual explosion did happen, and the author's notes explain what's real and what was embellished for the sake of the story.

Positive Messages

So long as one person is willing to remember, to tell the truth, the past will not be forgotten. Blood is not what makes someone a father. Family is about love, support, home. Some of the more overt injustices of the past are no longer tolerated, even if racial discrimination is still a problem.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Henry and Naomi are smart and loving. They love each other and take care of the twins as best they can under the circumstances. They try to find a place where they could be together, but it seems impossible. The twins are incredibly intelligent and prove to others in the town that not all Mexicans are ignorant or illiterate.

Violence

A young African-American man is nearly lynched. An explosion kills nearly 300 students and faculty. A child uses a firearm. Three people die from gunshot wounds at close range. A young woman is raped. A woman recalls being sexually molested as a child.

Sex

Two 17-year-olds in love have a physically intimate relationship that starts with hand-holding and progresses to kissing, making out, and oral sex. Before they're really together, those same teens touch themselves while thinking of each other. Wash admits he's been with other girls but doesn't reveal exactly how far. A young woman realizes her unrelated guardian is aroused by her. He finds excuses to touch her and eventually tells her they should get married. The "Gang" of white boys secretly wants to have sex with Naomi.

Language

Racial slurs including the "N" word, "blackie," "n----r-lover," "half-breed," "dirty Mexican," "Boy," "coon," and so on. Strong language such as "c--t," "bitch," "a--hole," "f--k," "goddamn," and the like.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A supposed reformed alcoholic drinks.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Out of Darkness is a historical novel by Ashley Hope Pérez that was named a 2016 Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book. Set in 1936 East Texas in the months leading up to the 1937 New London School Explosion, the book explores a fictional relationship between a Mexican teen allowed to attend the white high school and an African-American teen who lives in the black neighborhood on the other side of town. Language include racial slurs such as the "N" word, "Boy," and "dirty Mexican," as well as occasional curse words, including "s--t," "c--t," and "f--k." The violence is disturbing, personal, and based in racial hatred. Additionally, the book explores the mature and intimate relationship between two teens.

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What's the story?

Set in the months leading up to the 1937 New London school explosion in East Texas, OUT OF DARKNESS follows two fictional teens: Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller. Orphaned Mexican-American Naomi wouldn't normally be allowed to attend the all-white high school, but she moves to town under the guardianship of her younger twin siblings' formerly estranged white father Henry, who moved all three kids from their grandparents' poor Mexican neighborhood in San Antonio. Wash, meanwhile, is the son of educated, middle-class African-American parents who expect him to focus on his studies and attend one of the country's prestigious black colleges. Although he lives in the black part of town, he often works for white folks near the New London school to earn money. Wash is instantly attracted to Naomi and eventually wins her over by playing with the twins. But as Naomi and Wash embark on a secret interracial romance, the young lovers wonder if their forbidden love can exist outside the confines of the woods where they meet under the protection of a hollow tree.

Is it any good?

This award-winning historical novel about an interracial love story set against the institutional racism of 1930s Texas is heartrending and powerful. Perez candidly describes the heady emotional roller coaster of falling in love with the added heartache of knowing it's not only socially forbidden but illegal and dangerous. Naomi and Wash complete each other in a meaningful way, not to mention that Wash loves the precocious twins Cari and Beto, but they both know that their relationship is ultimately doomed -- especially in the confines of their small and segregated oil town.

The story explores real racial brutality, and the author never shies away from the town's overt racism or the mob violence that was considered acceptable -- so long as it was directed at African-Americans. Because each chapter is told from a different point of view, with Naomi and Wash having the most perspectives, Perez is able to delve fully into the psyches of even the antagonist and "The Gang," the voice that stands in for the white community of students. By no means is this an easy read; at times readers may need a box of tissues to manage the emotional nature of the last third of the story. But don't let that stop you; it's not only beautifully written but may start a powerful conversation about the injustices of the past and how they affect the present.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the power of historical novels to teach about events you didn't know about. Does this book make you want to learn more about the 1937 New London school explosion?

  • Are the racial slurs and prejudiced viewpoints expressed in the book difficult to read? Do you think the offensive language is necessary for the historical context?

  • How did the violence in Out of Darkness affect you? Was it different from the kind of violence, say, in paranormal and dystopian books?

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