Out of Darkness: A Tale of Hope and Tenderness Born Amid the Violence of Racism and Fear

Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Perez’s disturbing, heartbreaking tale set in East Texas in the 1930s, tells the story of Mexican-American Naomi Vargas, her twin half-siblings, Cari and Beto, and Wash Fuller, the  young black boy they all fall in love with.

out-of-darkness  Naomi and the twins, whose mother died in childbirth, move from the home of their maternal grandparents to live with the twins’ father in New London, Texas. He abandoned the children when they were small to chase jobs in the oil fields. With the encouragement of the pastor in his newly joined parish, he believes only taking responsibility will redeem his soul. Unfortunately, his past sexual abuse of Naomi when she was a young girl prevent her from overcoming her hatred and fear of him. His selfishness and hardness keep him from winning any true affection from the twins, as well.

In her new life, Naomi faces bigotry — she is accepted neither by the white community nor the African American one– but also friendship with church women and neighbors. When she meets and falls in love with Wash, the young black carpenter and handyman whose own story exposes the devastating truth of racism and abuse in Texas history, the story sings with pleasure and the exhilarating hope of young love.

According to the author the story is based on newspaper accounts of life in the area during this painful era and revolves around a true life-event of the worst school disaster in American History. The narrative, though could be the retelling of any one of hundreds of crimes against people of Mexican descent or African Americans. Perez’s novel is a tough read because she never softens the brutality of the racism, revealing it to be so entrenched in the culture as to be “normal” and expected, seemingly by everyone. In addition, the raw violence and unwanted sexual attention of her stepfather toward Naomi is difficult to read. The contrast, however, between his violation and abuse of her and the tenderness and joy she shares with her siblings and Wash prevent the story from sinking into hopelessness. Watching Naomi discover the redeeming expansiveness of young love as she falls in love with Wash makes this novel unforgettable despite its tragic and violent conclusion.]

SSS –Graphic and violent descriptions of abuse and rape.

VVV — Graphic violence and disturbing language used throughout in service to historical accuracy.

A 2016 Miachel L. Prince Honor Book

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History Forgotten Is History Relived, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

sepetys-coverIn this heartbreaking story, based on real life events and characters, debut novelist Ruta Sepetys recounts the horror of life in Stalin’s prisons during World War II and after. With searing detail this gifted writer drags the reader into the horrors of life under the Soviet Union for any who came into conflict with the system. Sepetys never lets the reader look away from the brutality. She piles on the suffering and the struggle, from hunger, disease, humiliation, and deprivation, but she also relates the beauty and persistence of love even under extreme duress.  

In the early morning of June 1941, NKVD forces of the Lithuanian Army arrest 15 year old Lina, her younger brother Jonas, and their mother. Loaded onto a cattle car, along with other “traitors” to the Communist Rule in Lithuania, they are shipped to forced labor farms. From there they end up in Siberia. In both prisons they suffer brutal conditions, starvation rations and violence. Sepetys’s story, however, never descends into utter hopelessness. In the face of unspeakable treatment, Lina’s mother demonstrates for her children, and all those around them, both prisoners and guards alike, how to hold onto one’s humanity and see the world through another’s eyes, even when all seems lost.

Sepetys explains in an Author’s Note that twenty million people suffered and died in Stalin’s camps, and that this forgotten history must be remembered, because history forgotten is history relived. As she herself writes, these victims “chose love over hate and that even through the darkest night, there is light.”

In reality, though, her story reminds us of an even deeper truth: that evil and hate can only be conquered by kindness and love, even in the face of death.

Violence – V -Violence is realistically portrayed but not gratuitous or gruesomely described

Sex – S —  Sexual violence not openly portrayed but hinted at.

 

Quick Lit review: All American Boys – From the Headlines to a 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor book, and the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature.

all-american-boys

Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s book, All American Boys, tells the story behind the headlines of a racially charged clash between a young black male and a white police officer. While all the names and details are fictional, the tragic truth remains that the facts are all too real. When Rashad Butler is brutally beaten after a string of racist misjudgments on the part of a store clerk and a police officer, a community is torn in two. Because the scenario leading up to the beating is so mundane, this story provides the reader with a chance to ponder the realities of what happens when white people — store clerks, police officers and innocent bystanders –jump to conclusions and react without checking their biases, or do nothing at all.

As one boy, Rashad, a black high school jock and Junior ROTC recruit, recovers in the hospital, another, Quinn Collins, the white boy who witnessed the event, struggles to understand what he saw in the face of conflicting stories and false assumptions. The resulting soul searching and tension between each boy and his family and community shed much needed light on the implications of trying to just stay out of it. Reynolds and Kiely tell the tale honestly and deliberately, digging into both sides of the story so there can be no illusions about the reality of how racism effects the lives of all members of a community. By writing a two-person narrative, one Rashad’s, and the other Quin’s, whose family is intimately associated with the police officer who did the beating, the authors allow no room for neutrality. As the two boys struggle to understand what happened, each one recognizes that only through his own actions can anything truly change in their community or the world. Each one independently and reluctantly steps into the role he must play for the community to move toward solutions. The authors stop short of neatly tying the story up with a community healed and reconciliation on the horizon. Instead they offer testimony to the racism suffered by young black men in America. They demonstrate that  wishing for life to just get back to normal, or failing to act on the truth are no way to respond to injustice and racism. Reynolds and Kiely offer the hope that only when each of us makes the decision to respond to and question the socially entrenched racism we live in daily can things begin to change.

Violence – V – the details of the attack are not graphic;
Sex – No overt sexual activity or talk
Questionable Behavior – ?? – Several of the characters engage in or discuss underage drinking, drug use and property vandalism.

 

Winger by Andrew Smith – A boarding school Story that just might turn your ears purple.

Winger Reading this book made me feel as if I’d walked straight into a locker-room filled with sweaty, grass-stained, blood-smeared, testicle-talking, gay-bashing athletes standing around in their towels, trashing each other and every female on the planet. But don’t get me wrong. I mean that in a totally good way. This glimpse into Boy World, actually explains a lot. Sports, violence, homophobia, friendship, body image, and an obsession with sex are the building blocks of a story that, among other things, deals with the difficulties of being male in our sex-infused, misogynistic, money and image-conscious white heterosexual male-dominant world.

At the heart of the story is Ryan Dean West, a fourteen-year-old junior at an elite boarding school in the Pacific Northwest. He plays rugby and lusts after anything female, except of course for the ancient, witch-like floor mother of the girl’s dorm floor. Nicknamed Winger for his position on the rugby team, Ryan Dean feels like an outcast, even though he openly boasts that he is the fastest guy at the school and also one of the smartest. No matter who and what you are, it seems, being in high school really just sucks.

As Ryan Dean navigates the world of calculus, literature assignments, team practices, and friendship he also struggles to figure out how he can get Annie Altman, who is two years older than him and his best friend, to fall in love with him. Meanwhile he is not-so secretly making out (24 times to be exact- he’s kept track) with his roommate’s hot girlfriend. Ryan Dean is also one of an openly gay rugby player’s only friends, stuck in the dorm reserved for rule-breakers and troublemakers, and convinced the girls’ dorm mother has laid any number of curses on him. In the first months of his junior year, though, his foibles and infractions of the rules give him new insight into the role that intellect, honesty, and honor play in sports, friendship and life.

As usual Andrew Smith doesn’t pull any punches as he portrays Ryan Dean’s experience, in all its raw detail – the violence and thrill of the testosterone-driven world of American high school sports, both the physicality and the camaraderie. This is a book that will definitely appeal to boys for its humor and easy sex-obsessed banter, but it also reveals the inner soul of all those kids who are just trying to survive while aiming at maybe being a good person, too. The book’s heartbreaking finale, although carefully set up and deftly foreshadowed, and certainly as realistic as contemporary headlines unfortunately attest, contrasts with the humorous tone and lightheartedness rendered in the ink drawings sprinkled throughout the book and will leave a tragic aftertaste that might disappoint some readers. But anyone who knows Smith’s work, won’t blink an eye. They will, however, thoroughly enjoy this funny, poignant look at the travails, tragedy, and challenges of being an adolescent male in America today.  

For grades 9 and up

Violence –VV (genuinely portrayed and essential to the story)

Sex– SS (mostly trash talk about male and female body parts, but no explicit sex scenes)

Language — Lots of foul language but nothing this age group hasn’t heard before.

Questionable Behavior — ??? (That pretty much is what this books is about)

FIf I ever get out of hereew novels have affected me the way Eric Gansworth’s book, If I Ever Get Out of Here did. Gansworth’s insider knowledge of the way a bullied outsider feels makes reading this novel feel like witnessing a horrible crime without any way of stopping it. Set in the 1970s, Ganswrorth’s protagonist, Lewis, a Native American boy, who is learning to negotiate the disparities between life outside the rez and his pride about who he is and how much his culture means to him.

From the moment he befriends George, the army brat whose life is regulated by his own unusual circumstances (Military personnel and their families of the era suffered their own form of ostracism), Lewis’s life moves from loneliness to friendship to frustration. Few writers could pull of such a complex intermingling of an outsider’s POV and the subtle complexity of white privilege and bigotry.  In addition, Gansworth seemingly intimate knowledge of what it means to be a kid, powerless in a world ruled by clueless adults, made Lewis’s frustration and rage palpable to the point of making me want to beat up the bully myself. As the adults around him give Lewis conflicting advice, the young people in the story take matters into their own hands and the results are hardly unexpected. When confronting a bully, they prove that only the language of a bully gets through to a bully. But Gansworth’s most insightful comments took my breath away, when Lewis, the abused outsider whose only crime is being a “smart Indian” explains: we are all supporting characters in someone else’s story.

For 7th grade and up

Questionable Behavior = ?

Violence = VV

To know what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, read Eric Gansworth’s YA debut, If I Ever Get Out of Here

Mosquitoland, by David Arnold, a journey from despair to hope.

Mosquitoland

(Be warned –spoilers ahead)

In his debut novel, Mosquitoland, author David Arnold showcases a finely tuned talent for writing with the voice of a modern young person. He deftly drops the names of popular and imagined cultural references to his mixture to keep his story real. He sprinkles his character’s language with the requisite swear words, from the mundane to the explicit. He even produces a pervert –a child molester who preys on young people in fast food restrooms — to keep readers on our toes as we follow the story of Mary Iris Malone (Mim for short) as she journeys toward Cleveland from Mississippi. She’s on a desperate trek to reach her mother after she suddenly goes silent.

Arnold’s story has all the ingredients of a success, including a love story and a Native American character of ambiguous ethnicity (Go Viking Books for Young Readers #WeNeedDiverseBooks). Mim’s voice comes through loud and clear, as do the voices of every character in the novel. For me, however, what was less clear was Mim’s emotional center. Her problem and its resolution felt pat.

Mim’s father, newly married after a quick divorce, has moved his new family from Ohio to Mississippi, the Mosquitoland of the title. As the story unfolds through both live narration and journal entries –letters to a mysterious “Isabelle”–the reader slowly begins to uncover the depth of Mim’s pain. We learn she has been prescribed an antipsychotic drug to prevent symptoms of a mental illness. We hear about her less-than-magazine-perfect life with her parents before the divorce. We learn about her soft spot for people in need. (Mim draws people to her like honey on waffles.) In that way, Mim’s heart and Arnold’s writing shine.

Mim’s odyssey is laced with strangers and diversions, including a gay gas station owner, a cookie-scented elderly woman (grandmother of said gas station owner), a knife-wielding schizophrenic, a “devastatingly handsome” college dropout, and a homeless boy with Downs Syndrome. This lovingly drawn supporting cast charges the narrative with humor, compassion and genuine emotion. But the abrupt and seemingly complete transformation of Mim’s attitude toward her stepmother, perpetrator of all evil done to her family in the previous six months, mars the narrative.

This is a fun, emotion-packed read, and readers will thoroughly enjoy the antics and adventures of Mim and her sidekicks. It will definitely entertain young adult readers. But its emotional truth, especially for those who know what it’s like to have a family riven by betrayal or illness, misses the mark. Otherwise, the humor, romance, and characters will keep readers turning pages to the final revelation.

Violence- minimal but present

Sexual tension –innocent and believable

Questionable behavior  –minimal – other than disappearing without a trace, which of course is necessary for the story to get moving.

For Grades 7th and up.

Fantasy Throwback Review – Jordan’s (and Sanderson’s) Wheel of Time Series, well worth the investment.

Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy adventure, The Wheel of Time series, offers readers much to appreciate beyond fantasy and adventure.  Begun in 1990, and brought to its monumental conclusion fourteen volumes later in 2012 by Brandon Sanderson, a fantasy icon in his own right, this wide-ranging narrative touches on questions of free will, destiny, the nature of evil, and the power of love, all while never flagging as a wild, world-bending, fantasy.

The story follows the lives of childhood friends, Rand al’Thor, Matrin Cauthon, Perrin Aybarra, Nynaeve al’Meara, and Egwene al’Vere who flee their small village in a hinterland outpost of the kingdom of Andor, under the protection of Moiraine Damodred, an infamous channeler of the One Power. As they journey away from their home, chased by the agents of the Dark One, a being who personifies the forces of evil, these five are joined by a cast of characters as diverse and interesting in their own right that the reader is soon immersed in a world so fascinating and unusual, that the thousands of pages it takes to read their story fly by.

Wheel of timeWhat is most interesting, however, is how Jordan and later Sanderson manage to make this enormous tale feel deeply personal. With each chapter or chapter segment, they remain firmly in the head of one point-of-view character, both the evil and the honorable, offering the reader a rare glimpse into the workings of an enemy’s heart, in addition to his or her mind. As Rand and his friends move closer with each page toward the inevitable Final Battle, the authors manage to explore topics as important as life’s purpose, the question of freedom in the face of duty and destiny, and the purpose of power. At the same time, the work contains enough humor, bloody battles and flirtatious romance that it will keep even the most demanding readers happy.

Volumes have been written by fans on wikis and fan-sites to help keep the labyrinthine tale straight, so this series needs no detailed summary from me. Well worth the effort.

Violence = +++

Sexual Tension = only mildly overt. All sexual encounters occur off camera.

For readers 12 and up.