I’ve been nervous to read Ruta Septys’ debut novel, Between Shades of Gray because I knew a novel about the Holocaust would be an emotionally draining reading experience. When her second novel, Out of the Easy, was released, I thought a whodunnit murder mystery set in 1950s Louisiana would be a good introduction to her work. It proved to be a rich historical novel with a complex plot and a compelling protagonist.
Josie grew up in the French Quarter, the daughter of a prostitute who works at one of the more posh brothels in New Orleans. The madam of the brothel is more of a mother-figure to her than own, and she’s lived on her own in a small apartment above a bookshop for years. From a young age she’s relied on herself and dreamed of escaping New Orleans.
Not only is she street-smart, she’s been reading all those books in the store where she works and excelled in school. She wants to go to college, and not just at one of the local universities, but an elite school on the East Coast. Not only does she value her education, she wants to escape the place where everyone knows her as a whore’s daughter and expects her to someday follow in her footsteps. But Josie has one foot in each world; even if she works in a respectable book shop, she also spends her mornings cleaning the rooms of the prostitutes in the brothel and is a known associate of Willie, the madam. Getting out of the Big Easy won’t come easy.
A couple of chance meetings give her hope of leaving the Quarter, but also connect her to a murder investigation and provide the opportunity to see how far she is willing to go in order to gain acceptance into the university of her dreams.
The plot is intricate. It was nearly half way through before the mystery had been mapped out. Each secondary character has their own thread, but they all intersected. Though the story was slow to establish itself, the writing was so good I had no problem keeping interest. The narrative was rich in historical detail and transported me back in time. Sepetys certainly did her research, but it is all so effortlessly integrated. Readers who generally shy away from historical fiction should give this one a try.
All of the secondary characters, from Josie’s friend who also works in the bookstore, and his father, the owner, to the colorful girls of the brothel, were delightful to get to know. Though Josie had a terribly selfish, mean, and stupid mother, friends like Cokie, who drives a taxi and often carts her around at Willie’s request, and Jesse, the neighborhood mechanic who has a nice smile and a big heart, provide her with affection and support. My favorite character had to be Willie, the tough business woman who was a legend in the Quarter. She was crass and elegant at the same time, exacting but supportive. Though she was rough on Josie, her affection for her was also obvious.
What I sometimes find disappointing about young adult literature is the happily-ever-after endings (I’m looking at the neat and tidy epilogues to popular series like the The Hunger Games and Harry Potter). It’s silly, really, and reads as false, because these characters are still so young, no matter what they’ve accomplished, that it’s ridiculous to think that all is well now the story is over and there will never be any more conflict. What I loved so much about the ending to Out of the Easy was that it felt true. It was hopeful without being trite. Josie wasn’t singing “the sun will come out, tomorrow” like Little Orphan Annie. There’s no redemption of villains or quick, easy fix for Josie’s problems. She deals with loss and disappointment, yet life goes on.
If you’re skeptical about the literary merits of young adult fiction, this novel might change your mind. It was so well-written and enjoyable I’m going to grab an extra box of tissues and curl up with Between Shades of Gray, and I’ll look forward to Sepetys next historical novel.
– Molly, YA