Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez

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“It wasn’t that Beto wanted to tell the story. It was that he had to. He hoped that, after, he could begin to dream of the fragile joy of the months before the explosion and of the family that they had made for themselves in the woods. 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” (Perez 2016, p. 196).

This book was incredibly difficult to get through, and I found myself having to take frequent breaks in order to process what I was reading. On the one hand, I found it incredibly powerful and engaging, with characters who feel like real people rather than caricatures. On the other hand, I felt like the book was a constant slog of misery and heart-break, only serving to depress me and remind me of the horrors and injustices of the world. I found myself gasping in shock at some of the events of the novel, and often wanted to step in to protect the characters from what was happening. Ashley Hope Perez is, without a doubt, an amazing author, and it’s very clear that she did intense research when writing and preparing this book.

Out of Darkness takes place in New London, Texas, in the year of 1937. The story focuses on Naomi Vargas and her two half-siblings, Cari and Beto, who have just been sent to live with their estranged father Henry. Henry has a history of sexual abuse and alcoholism, and Naomi resents him for inadvertently causing the death of her mother after repeated miscarriages and the bloody birth of her half-siblings. While he is the biological father of Beto and Cari, Henry is merely Naomi’s stepfather, giving him all of the excuse he needed to sexually abuse her at a young age. Perez uses the 1937 New London school explosion to frame the narrative, telling a compelling story about love, loss, family, and the compassion and humanity we can find in others during times of tragedy.

The first thing I feel like I have to say about this book is that I wanted Henry to die from the very first page. I absolutely hated him as a character, and found myself grinding my teeth at some of the horrible things he did to Wash, Beto, and Naomi. He is a textbook abuser, using his authority as the head of the household to not only make advances on Naomi, but to emotionally abuse Beto and Cari at every opportunity. He threatens to kill Beto’s cat several times throughout the novel, and frequently treats Wash as being less than human simply because of the color of his skin. As if that weren’t enough, he feels ownership over Naomi, claiming a right to her and her body and becoming enraged when he later learns that she has fallen in love with Wash. Terrible as it might be, I had to cheer when Beto finally killed him in the end, ending his reign of terror over those around him.

Vile as he was, there were times when I felt that Perez was almost trying to make Henry sympathetic, leading the reader to believe he was trying to do better and live an honest life. I would find myself sympathizing with his desperate attempts to make things work… And then I would remember how he frequently raped Naomi’s mom until forcefully impregnating her (despite protests from her doctor), and how he forced a young Naomi to perform sexual acts on him for his own twisted pleasure. I quickly lost any and all sympathy I might have had for him when I was reminded of his past actions, especially after seeing how they continued to affect Naomi, who was forced to tiptoe around him for fear of setting him off. Despite his own faults, and the fact that he was a raging alcoholic, Henry still had the nerve to treat Wash like trash, making me wish <i>he</i> had been in the school instead of Cari near the end. I recognize that Henry’s viewpoints reflected the views of many during this time period, but he somehow managed to be so vile and unforgivable that I judged him even more harshly for it than I would other characters.

The romance between Naomi and Wash felt extremely authentic, and I found myself rooting for them despite the odds. Because this book had already gone to incredibly dark places, I knew it wasn’t likely to end well, but I kept hoping anyways that they would somehow make it out okay. Perez was obviously looking to portray realistic circumstances, but the novel felt so dark and devoid of any hope at times that it was hard to continue. To be fair, I didn’t really expect a book centered around a massive tragedy to be happy and end well, but I wished there had been just a little more joy in the book before all hell broke loose at the end. The quiet moments with Naomi and Wash were touching, and I was happy to see the two characters (both of whom had been treated terribly by society) find solace in one another. I only wish they’d managed to escape Henry’s control and abuse in the end.

This book honestly didn’t feel like a young adult novel; it felt more like reading a horrific piece of adult historical fiction, with themes such as racism, rape, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and violence. I felt so incredibly sorry for Naomi, who’d lived an incredibly rough life up until the beginning of the book, and was severely punished for trying to enjoy the only small modicum of happiness she’d been able to find in Wash. I must admit that the ending of the novel left me a sobbing puddle of emotion, wondering why such horrific things have to happen to such genuinely kind and caring people. I was concerned for Beto, who likely carried the scars of what happened for the rest of his life (as the end of the novel hints). I was happy to see Henry punished for his actions, but also devastated that Wash, Cari, and Naomi had to die first. The characters are fictional, but written in a way that makes them seem real, so I felt a genuine loss at their tragic demise. The story was heart-breaking and frustrating, and while realistic, I think it needed more light moments to balance out the tragedy of it all.

Another thing I really appreciated about this book was the commentary on religion. Though Henry claims to have found religion throughout the novel, it doesn’t stop him from doing vile, terrible things. Similarly, Perez hints throughout the story that religion often gives individuals an excuse to be hateful towards others while patting themselves on the back and feeling holy. Even the preacher, though he seems to be more tolerant and forgiving of others, sees no problem with Henry trying to woo and marry his underage stepdaughter as long as he doesn’t “give in to his urges” before they’re married. Part of this might just be a mark of the times (couples married much younger back then), but it still left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I applaud Perez’s efforts to demonstrate that religion does not always make a holy person; in fact, it can often give someone an excuse to be even more vile than they were before.

Though this book ripped my heart out and repeatedly stomped on it, I had to admit that it is an amazing work of young adult fiction. This isn’t a story I would recommend to the faint of heart, nor to the inexperienced or reluctant reader. It is powerful, but incredibly heavy and depressing, filled with moments that will leave the reader screaming at the injustice of the events taking place. Perez injects a sobering amount of realism into the work, never letting you forget that this is taking place in 1930s America rather than a fantasy universe. Though the characters are fictional, their experiences are based on real world accounts from the time period, reminding us of the horrors of the past. If you are interested in an engaging work of fiction about a real disaster, or if you’re simply a masochist who loves being made to cry, I would highly recommend Out of Darkness.

Reference:

Perez, Ashley Hope. (2016). Out of Darkness. Paw Prints.

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