How Dark is Too Dark?

The Michael J. Prinz medal is awarded every year by the ALA for excellence in YA literature. “Excellent,” to the ALA, often means edgy, trendy, or outright grim: it’s a sure bet that at least one title in each year’s selection (of one winner and 2 or 3 honor books) will be seriously depressing.

This year is no exception. The winner, Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, is broody and sometimes confusing, but strikes strong positive notes as well. One of the runners-up, Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgewick, is mostly confusing and often draggy. The other runner-up, Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez, is not confusing or draggy at all, but rather drives forward relentlessly to a climax often described as “shattering.” The title fits—except maybe for the Out of part.

In the 1930s, an oil boom centered in Kilgore, Texas, showered gifts on the surrounding towns: roads, civic centers, schools, and above all, jobs. Henry Smith, a hardscrabble day laborer, has found a job that pays well enough to send for his twins, Beto (Robert) and Cari (Carolina), and his stepdaughter Naomi.  The children have lived in San Antonio with their maternal grandparents since their mother died. Naomi, now in her mid-teens, is smart and beautiful but “Mexican,” and transferred to a culture where Hispanics are only a half-step above blacks in the social stratum. Though she is allowed to go to school with the twins (who are light enough to pass), she’s the target of crude jokes and constant slights.  Her life brightens when she meets Wash Fuller in the deep piney woods between their schools. Wash is a charmer, a star student at the Negro school he attends, well liked as long as he stays in his place. Of course they’re going to fall in love, and of course their romance is doomed from the start.

The author frames their tragedy around the historical tragedy of the New London school explosion of 1937, a disaster that took over 200 lives. The explosion, caused by a gas leak, really happened. What didn’t happen was frantic white people looking for someone to blame, descending on random black people, and stringing them up from trees. The author explains in her historical note that there’s no record of the racial ugliness she describes in the story, but it could have happened, because the bigotry was exactly as described.

I get that—we lived in East Texas briefly in the 1970s and its record for racial harmony is dismal. I’m sure the region has a lynch-mob legacy of some sort. But linking some truly shocking fictional events (including a rape, a brutal murder, and the destruction of a young child’s innocence) to a real historical event creates a misleading picture. Yes, the “shattering” climax depicted by Ms. Perez could have happened—anything could happen. But it didn’t, and her use of the school explosion as a springboard to further horrors seems just a little . . . self-indulgent? Shock-value overkill?

To her credit, she tries to humanize Henry, the villain, by writing several chapters from his point of view. We come to understand his sense of inadequacy, his overcompensation, his pathetic attempts at redemption through a “born-again” experience. And the local Baptist pastor is not the usual mealy-mouthed hypocrite. But the pastor is ineffective, which is almost as bad as hypocritical. In the end Henry collapses on himself, leaving something less than human, a torch of rage that burns up any sympathy the reader might have had for him. He’s pure evil, working pure evil, like his fellow furious whites. But not like us, right?

The heart, as Jeremiah (17:9) says, is “desperately wicked” and capable of anything. But the heart is deceptive first of all, and the first person it deceives is itself. Writers of YA fiction often tell us that many young people already know the heart of darkness and need to be reassured that somebody understands. Or something like that. It’s hard to know what purpose, beyond the cathartic, a novel like Out of Darkness serves for young readers, because it doesn’t take them out of darkness—rather the opposite direction. The author says something in the afterword about “hope,” but it’s hard to see where she fits that in. This is one of the most depressing, hope-less YA novels I’ve ever read.  Not to mention the language and sex.

But the worst effect, perhaps, is on young readers who focus on the harrowing evil displayed by some characters and fail to see the petty forms of evil in themselves. The racial bigotry on lurid display in Out of Darkness doesn’t apply to them—or not the great majority of them. But while congratulating themselves for not being like that, are they overlooking their own thoughtless words and selfish acts?

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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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