On May 23rd, 2005, my middle school caught on fire. We walked through the halls all day, smelling smoke. We thought someone was barbecuing or something. The neighbors saw smoke rising from the school, but thought it was someone burning leaves. After the final bell, we all went to our lockers, celebrating, only ten or so days left of school! All of the sudden, we hear over the intercom “Everyone get out! The building is on fire!” Of course we were panicked. All those fire drills were kind of worthless.
I exited the building and looked up. Black smoke was billowing from the roof. Kids were singing “The roof! The roof! The roof is on fire!” and pumping their arms up and down. It was the most surreal experience of my life. I met up with my friends and went over to one of their houses. We treated it like a normal day. “Hey mom, I’m heading over to Matt’s. I’ll be home by dinner. By the way, my school’s on fire love you bye!” That was an actual voicemail I left my mom. I’m such a doofus. I guess it’s good she knew that I was okay.
My mom and I joined the spectators later that night. The whole school didn’t burn to the ground. The roof collapsed into the first floor and there was immense water and smoke damage to the rest of the building. I was in Mrs. Snyder’s homeroom, which was the last class of the day. Her room was in the top right corner of the building. I glanced up, surveyed the damage. If I was there for another twenty minutes, I would have been crushed to death. Burned. Dead. Luckily, no one was hurt. It was caused by some wiring or something in the attic, no arson, no cause for alarm.
Accidents happen. Whether it is due to faulty wiring or a gas leak, things can get ugly quick. Let me tell you, things got ugly quick in Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez. A partially true store set in the mid-1930’s, it tells the story of an explosion that happened at an all-white school in Texas that killed hundreds of kids. The book opens with a very dark, visceral scene of what happened after the blast. Gathering bodies. Caring for the wounded. I think that sets a very accurate tone for the rest of the book.
The book is split into two parts: Before and After the explosion. The narrative shifts between different viewpoints: Beto, Naomi, Wash, Henry, and The Gang. The first four are all third person limited POVs, but, and this got me so good, The Gang is a FIRST PERSON OMNISCIENT WHAT CAN YOU DO THAT?! Beto, his twin Cari, and Naomi all begin at the school after moving there from San Antonio with their father/step father, Henry. Wash is the love interest who attends the black school in a nearby town. Naomi is Mexican and that causes quite a stir at the school: All the girls want to be her, all the guys want to be in her. Wash becomes friends with the twins and eventually woos Naomi. Things are looking up.
However, Henry and the town may have different plans for her.
The book deals a lot with race relations, family dynamics, abuse of all kinds, and it’s just straight up bonkers at points. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to everyone. The writing was beautiful. The research was amazing. The characters OH THE CHARACTERS. Love, love, love.
As a warning, it does get very graphic at points. If you have had similar experiences to the ones in the book, proceed with caution.