Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘school explosion of 1937

Books such as Out of Darkness by Ashley Perez are the reason I read. The atmosphere that Perez creates is so rich that I felt transplanted into the world of Naomi and Wash in New London, Texas, 1937. Racial tension and family conflict and lie under the surface for most of the novel creating a multi-layered complexity not often found in fiction for young people. I read Out of Darkness slowly to savor the story, but also quickly to discover what drama would befall Naomi and her siblings who had recently arrived in Texas from Mexico.

While reading Out of Darkness, I felt hot and cold, isolated and crowded, welcomed and scared…. Whatever emotions the main characters experienced, so did I. That makes for quite the visceral experience! On one occasion, Naomi accidentally burns her arm with splashes of oil. During the entire time that her arm hurt, I felt hot and tortured right along with her. Another moment, Naomi felt too fearful of her stepfather to allow herself to sleep. When her body began to show signs of fatigue, my head ached and my stomach clenched right alone with hers. How exactly does Perez create such an intense atmosphere? One way is she allows herself time to fully explore a moment. And yet she never wastes words. That makes for quite the delicate balance! Another way is she shows a deep understanding of people’s feelings. A favorite passage of mine is near the start, when Naomi’s siblings are walking through nearby woods. Perez eloquently captures the contrast between their old and new environment in these few lines: “The woods gave him the feeling of being inside and outside at the same time. Full of birds and animals but hushed, like a church the hour before Mass. Back in San Antonia, there were no woods. If you were outside you knew it.”

When I picked up Out of Darkness to read, I knew that prejudice and hate would be part of the package. How subtle these emotions would be revealed is not something I expected, and shows the sign of a highly-skilled author. On one occasion, Naomi’s siblings join their father at a restaurant for breakfast. The pancakes were golden-fried and dripped in syrup. In every way, Perez tells us, the pancakes were perfect. The only way I even know that the siblings were feeling uncomfortable is that they chewed their food five times before they swallowed, and by the two sentences that summed up the scene: “Naomi would have loved the pancakes. But he’d read the sign on the restaurant door, and that changed everything.” Even when the discrimination is more overt, the reactions of the characters to it are so quiet that they’re powerful. After Naomi overhears teachers at her school talk about Mexican girls being retarded but also sluts, she stays secluded a long time, “working her fingers through the tail of her braid, fighting to get free of their words.” Many authors when writing about racial tension and other social wrongs tend to structure scenes as to make a point. Perez’s story always feels as if I’m reading a family saga, or a genre of literature that chronicles the lives and doings of a family, rather than a narrative about segregation. And so when the violence does happen, it feels all the more like a gunshot to the stomach.

As I reached about the halfway mark for Out of Darkness, I couldn’t resist sharing some of my excitement about this gem to my husband. At end of my chatter, he asked me to share some sample passages, and then he asked me to save the book for him to read. We have our own tastes, and don’t often read the same selections. However, Out of Darkness is one of those novels that defies labels and therefore becomes universal in its appeal.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

A native of Texas, Ashley has followed whatever paths that teaching and writing have led her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature and enjoys teaching Spanish language and Latin American literature. She’s also a writer of three books, and is passionate about literature for readers of all ages, but especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences.

On her website, Perez states that reading has always been one of her passions. “Maybe if I hadn’t also fallen in love with teaching, I might have become a librarian just so that I could be around as many books as possible. But I’m also a big talker, a tendency that doesn’t evaporate when I cross a library’s threshold.” As for those teaching experiences, Perez has many varied ones. She’s taught bilingual kindergarten, Montessori 6-9, high school English, and even university literature classes.

Perez credits her three years of teaching high school in Houston of transforming her into an author. “Many of my students were convinced they hated to read and write at the beginning of the year and equally persuaded of the opposite by the end of the year.” Even now that she’s a university professor, Perez jumps at the chance to reconnect with young readers through school visits and events.

Image from GoodReads

Image from GoodReads

Perez’s third novel, Out of Darkness, is historical fiction and deals with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. She wrote it while juggling many other tasks: finishing a doctoral dissertation, changing jobs and geographical location, and giving birth to a second child. When Latinos in Kid Lit asked how she managed to “write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life”, Perez responded that during this time while drafting the novel, she gave herself time off from academic research. Then when her family returned from France to the United States, she used the novel as a motivation:If I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.”

Thanks to Ashley Perex for answering a few questions for me about Out of Darkness.

ALLISON: Why did you get interested in writing about the 1937 New London school explosion?

ASHLEY: I grew up about 30 minutes from New London, but I never learned about the explosion in school. I do have vague memories of I my grandmother and father discussing the tragedy in hushed tones. I had some sense that something scary and sudden had happened in New London and that children had died. That those children numbered in the hundreds was a fact I only learned later.

Initially, I became fascinated with the particulars of this event, what it meant for the community, and how the story went silent for nearly seven decades before survivors began sharing their experiences. I didn’t know how the historical event would become part of my fictional world, only that it would be.

ALLISON: How did you handle the challenge of writing about segregation and violence?

ASHLEY: Color lines and violence became central to the story of Out of Darkness because of the perspectives I chose to put at the center of my story, which focuses on Naomi, a Mexican American teenager from San Antonio, and Wash, the African American son of the “colored” school’s superintendent. Centering the story on Wash and Naomi was a very deliberate response to what I discovered in my research on the explosion. With very few exceptions, the explosion has been treated by historians as an event that impacted the white community. Yet I could not get over the terrible irony that African American children were spared precisely because they had been excluded from the unquestionably superior educational opportunities available in the (white) New London school. I wanted to delve into—and imagine—stories from the margins of mainstream history.

The details of the explosion are factual, and the fictional events—especially the darker turns in the plot—are consistent with terrible happenings in Texas and other parts of the South.

Racialization renders Wash and Naomi deeply vulnerable in public spaces. In 1937 East Texas, Wash’s mere presence in public space is read by white community members as a punishable threat. I know from speaking with readers that Out of Darkness can be deeply affecting but also shocking to some readers. And I had my own struggles to reckon with the pain and human weakness and failure that swirl at the dark center of this story world.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will gain from reading Out of Darkness?

ASHLEY: I hope that readers think about how, in all its pain and difficulty, Out of Darkness speaks directly to our present moment. When readers are shocked by the violence and predation that occur in the novel or feel discomfort at the intensity of their own disappointment and sense of loss, I hope they will consider the deep and persisting vulnerability of brown and black bodies in many public spaces now, in 2016. I hope that readers’ deep attachments to Wash and Naomi and other characters will compel them to consider, in new ways, the high human cost of contemporary racialized violence.

These are painful conversations, but crucial ones as well. I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity to be able to traverse the painful legacies of our past, our vexed present, and the possibilities of our future.

When Perez isn’t writing or teaching, she enjoys hanging out with family including her two sons. In any other scraps of time that remain, she likes to run in marathons, eat local foods, bake, watch movies, and play the occasional game of Scrabble. I’ll review Out of Darkness tomorrow. Save the date: May 5!


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