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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1046

Author: Ashley Hope Perez (b. 1987)

First published: 2015

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical Fiction

Time of plot: 1936–37

Locale: New London, Texas

Principal characters

Naomi Vargas, a motherless Mexican American girl who cares for her siblings

James Washington "Wash" Fuller , an African American boy...

(The entire section contains 1046 words.)

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Author: Ashley Hope Perez (b. 1987)

First published: 2015

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical Fiction

Time of plot: 1936–37

Locale: New London, Texas

Principal characters

Naomi Vargas, a motherless Mexican American girl who cares for her siblings

James Washington "Wash" Fuller, an African American boy who befriends her and her siblings

Henry Smith, her white stepfather

Roberto "Beto" Smith, her younger stepbrother

Caridad "Cari" Smith, her younger stepsister, Beto's twin

Tommie, her friend

The Story

In 2016, Ashley Hope Perez's book Out of Darkness was named the Tomás Rivera Book Award winner, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. This historical novel chronicles the experience of a set of fictional characters as they live through the worst school disaster in United States history, the 1937 New London school explosion.

The story starts with the explosion. James Washington Fuller, an African American boy, runs into the burning building to see if he can help. Just as he finds the shoe of someone he knows, Perez takes readers back in time to tell us the story of Wash's relationship with that person, and readers meet Naomi Vargas.

Naomi's part of the story starts when Henry Smith has a religious awakening, and his pastor urges him to take responsibility for the family that he abandoned years earlier. His job drilling oil in Texas provides an income and housing that will hold his twin children and their older sister, his stepdaughter, so he contacts their grandparents who have raised them since their mother died at their birth. As a result, fifteen-year-old Naomi and eight-year-old twins Cari and Beto move to East Texas to live with him. What Henry does not consider is the way his half-Mexican children and Mexican stepdaughter will fit into his community, and the complications of living in a racist community as well as his own inability to parent appropriately lead to conflicts for the whole family.

Soon after arriving in New London, Naomi meets Wash. Though Wash is the nicest person she has met, she knows that she should not be interacting with him because of race separations. This does not stop the two from forming a romantic relationship, which gives Naomi a sense of security despite the difficulties the two face. In fact, these challenges help create the basis of their shared experience, because Wash is the only person who understands the racism that Naomi faces from her fellow students and the townspeople. As she struggles with the white people in New London, Wash leads her to the friendlier New Egypt, the black area of town where minorities are served.

Unfortunately, the forbidden romance is the least of the obstructions Naomi and Wash must face in comparison to the tragedy that strikes when the local white school explodes. Children of all ages are killed, and Naomi's little family is forever touched, while the future that she and Wash had planned is destroyed by grieving community members who are looking for someone to blame.

Critical Evaluation

Following the popular formatting of switching narratives, Perez tells the stories of Naomi, Beto and Cari, and Henry through short snippets which focus on the individual characters' experiences during a seven-month period. Intertwined with the Smith family narratives are chapters focusing on Wash as well as parts focusing on "The Gang," a group of popular white boys from the school. Perez's ability to show readers how the world in 1937 Texas functioned provides a heartbreaking look into race and family. For instance, in the first section told by "The Gang," Naomi is described: "We knew she was a Mexican the second we saw her . . . It rolled off her in waves. Like when someone's been slopping pigs or digging around sewer lines." The cruelty of the members of this group continues throughout the novel as Naomi struggles to find a place for herself in a town where she can never fit.

Perez addresses a variety of themes as the story develops. First, there is the issue of basic needs. The Smith children have been taken out of the home where they have been raised in poverty but surrounded by love to live with a man who does not know how to be a parent. Naomi finds security inside the trunk of a hollowed-out tree in the woods near the house where she lives with Henry and the twins. She goes there to escape the difficulties and duties of living with Henry, which follow a thematic thread which showcases the expectations of women in the time period. The woods also become a safe place for the twins, and Wash, although only a teenager himself, becomes a sort of father figure to them as he plays with them and teaches them to fish. Perez uses this aspect of the story to explore the meaning of family, a question that has been raised partially in Henry's abandonment of his children when they were born.

Perez also explores the difficulties surrounding interracial relationships through the relationship between Naomi and Wash, which must be conducted largely in secret. Naomi must particularly hide this relationship from Henry; this is partly due to his racism, but a series of flashbacks to Naomi's life with Henry when he was married to her mother reveal a still darker reason. As she remembers being molested by Henry when her mother was ill due to repeated miscarriages and a difficult pregnancy with the twins, Naomi struggles with hatred for and fear of her stepfather. His desire to marry her even though she is only fifteen, and the white community's support of that idea, further frightens her, but it also gives Wash the incentive to get her away as soon as he can despite the cultural restrictions on their relationship.

Further Reading

  • Hong, Terry. Review of Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Pérez. School Library Journal, vol. 62, no. 7, 2016, p. 46. Book Review Digest Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brd&AN=116798271&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Accessed 12 Mar. 2017.
  • Kraus, Daniel. "The State of the YA Novel: 2015." Booklist, 15 Dec. 2015, pp. 52–53. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=111787506&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Accessed 12 Mar. 2017.
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