“This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”
New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Smith and Wash Fullerton know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But there are some forces even the most determined color lines cannot resist. And sometimes all it takes is an explosion.
Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.
Look, I know we’re all busy people. We read a ton of books. Our TBR lists are infinite scrolls and we’ll never even touch half of what we hope to read. But you need to figure out a way to find time to read this book as soon as possible. Don’t write it down on a list and then forget about it. Don’t bookmark this review as some reminder. Go RIGHT NOW and order this book from your library or favorite bookstore. Whatever else you’re reading can wait a day or two for you to read this instead. It’s that good. IT’S THAT GOOD, PEOPLE.
The novel begins in media res (you know—in the middle of things). It’s March 18, 1937. Did you need some time to adjust to how completely emotionally obliterating this book will be? Too bad—welcome to page one, where we are faced with the rubble of a recently exploded school littered with bodies. No, check that—it manages to be worse than that: riddled with bits of bodies. Let’s make it worse: of children. Sufficiently upset? Perez is just getting started.
We leave this heart-wrenching and gruesome scene to jump back to September 1936. Naomi and her twin siblings Beto and Cari are new to town, having recently been relocated from their San Antonio barrior to an oil-mining town by the twins’ father (and Naomi’s stepfather), Henry (their mother is dead). Naomi, who is Mexican, and her biracial siblings are instructed by Henry not to speak Spanish. The children seem to pass as white, but Naomi faces the town’s ugly racism. African-American Wash, the siblings’ one friend, is no stranger to racism either. The foursome quickly become friends, but keep their friendship secret, mainly getting together in wooded areas removed from the judging and gossiping eyes of others. Wash is the one saving grace in Naomi’s fairly unhappy life. Her classmates are constantly whispering about her. The girls hate her because she’s pretty and the boys just want to get in her pants. She does make one girl friend, and a few of the neighbors are friendly, but even if she had a thousand friends, it wouldn’t erase what is happening at home.
What’s happening at home, you ask? Some pretty horrific stuff. Naomi is essentially raising her siblings. She does all of the cleaning, cooking, and shopping (not easy when the stores don’t want to let in Negros, Mexicans, or dogs–the wording on the sign at the grocery store) while also attending high school. Naomi dislikes Henry (to put it mildly), that much we know, but the reasons why she hates him are slowly revealed. You might be able to guess what’s happening even with no context, but I’m not explicitly going to give you spoilers. Let’s just say it’s as bad as think…. multiplied by 100 more bads. Oh, and wait until you reach the end. Then it’s an infinite amount of bad.
Wash and Naomi grow closer, after some initial misunderstandings, and eventually Naomi trusts him enough to start confiding in him. Wash makes a plan for them to run away, with the twins, to Mexico, where it seems at least a tiny bit possible that a Mexican girl and an African-American boy could start a life together. What they have now is one very passionate and intense relationship that can only take place in secret. But with so much against them, could they possibly pull off a future together?
That question becomes simultaneously less and more important when the school explosion happens. Based on an actual event in history, the explosion leaves nearly 300 dead. Chaos and despair permeate the town, and the angry, grieving townspeople are desperate to find someone to blame. When Wash, who was present at the scene of the disaster, falls under suspicion, every single ugly thing that has been simmering in the novel get turned up to 11. If this were a movie, I would have been watching it with my eyes mostly covered. Since it’s a book, I just settled for sobbing and repeatedly putting it down. As you’re reading this book, go ahead and keep this question in the back of your mind: “What is the worst possible way all of this could end?” Then make it worse. And then make it so much worse you kind of feel sick that your brain could come up with such scenes. Now you’re almost there. IT’S THAT BAD, PEOPLE.
Have I convinced you yet to read it?
Perez’s story is nothing short of brilliant. The writing is tight, the tension manages to constantly increase, and the characters are exceptionally well-rendered. Was this book hard to read? Yes. Should that scare you away? No. Recommend this one widely to teens who like doomed love stories, historical fiction, diversity, or books where terrible things happen to people. Profoundly moving and richly imagined, this is a story that you won’t soon forget.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss
Publisher: Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/01/2015