Set in East Texas in 1937, this compelling YA novel uses a real life explosion at a school as the backdrop and metaphor for the powerful racial tensions of the time. Mexican American Naomi and her half siblings move to New London, Texas, to live with white oil worker Henry Smith, Naomi’s stepfather and the twins’ father. The 7 year-old twins, Cari and Beto, who look white, settle in well at school, whereas teenaged Naomi, who does not, has to face her schoolmates who hate her or lust after her because of her skin color.
Into this mix comes Wash, a young African American man from an upright home, who is saving to go to college. He and Naomi fall in love, and the sizzling chemistry between the two is beautifully evoked. Starkly contrasted to this is the toxic tension between Henry, wavering from the born again Christian path, and Naomi.
The novel is direct about the harsh, brutal and commonplace racism that Naomi and Wash face, and they are both victims of casual and cruel taunts, with no redress. The novel is not all darkness, though: there is some kindness, love and friendship, but for Naomi the fear and the foreboding never really go away except when she is in the woods with Wash.
The book is split into short sections, told in the third person from different points of view: Naomi, Wash, Beto, Henry and the Gang – a chorus of racist teenagers. The rhythm and pace of the book is set by the length of these sections, gathering urgency in the explosive, both literal and metaphorical, last quarter of the book.
Ultimately, none of the characters can escape their fates, and the brutally shocking ending, along with all that has gone before it, make this a grueling and challenging but worthwhile and enormously important read. In the Author’s Note, Ms. Pérez (The Knife and the Butterfly, 2012) states “The work of this book…was to bring to light experiences and narratives that might otherwise go unacknowledged” and she has achieved that admirably.