In Darkness

In Darkness by Nick Lake won the Printz award in 2013.  Since I’ve been on a kick to read through the Printz award winners and nominees this one was at the top of the list.  The book’s subject is Haiti. Both the Haiti of Toussaint l’Overture and of the 2010 earthquake.  Lake is from England so I was curious how a writer from England was going to handle a former-French colony in the Caribbean.  Overall, I think he did a good job.  But the connection between the two Haitis is thin at best.

DarknessLake starts the book by introducing us to Shorty, the 14-year-old protagonist of the contemporary section of the novel.  He was in the hospital the morning of the earthquake and is trapped under rubble.  While he’s awaiting death and/or rescue he’s flashing back on how he got there, describing his life in Site Soley, one of the worst slums in the world.  What’s interesting about this section is that Lake has clearly done his research.  He introduces us to the politics of the slum including the UN and world humanitarian efforts (aka mismanagement) of relief efforts as well as some of the well-known gang leaders who take over where the government does nothing.  While Lake doesn’t get too sentimental and down play the violence and crime, I think he does a great job of giving reasons why people are forced into the actions that make them more monsters than humans.  If you were living in a place where your staple was mud pies, you’d probably agree to do some pretty dark things too.

At the same time as we are meeting Shorty, Lake takes us all the way back to the time of the Haitian revolution and Toussaint l’Overture.  Again, Lake has done his historical research.  He takes the major instances of Toussaint’s life and gives them a nice narrative feel to them.  We get into Toussaint’s head and hear the story from his perspective.  I’m curious to read more about Toussaint and the Haitian revolution.  I didn’t know this, but it was the first slave rebellion to successfully establish a nation.  And it set a precedence throughout Europe and the Americas.  The sad part is, the French tricked Toussaint into trusting them, hauled him to France, and let him die in a prison.

Toussaint’s experience in the prison and Shorty’s “imprisonment” in the rubble of the hospital is Lake’s connection between Haiti’s past and present.   I’m venturing to guess that the point is that Haiti began in a dark place-slavery, depredation, fighting for survival, and it’s still happening today.  While not physically enslaved, many Haitians are economically enslaved and it’s one of the poorest countries in the world.  So I give Lake credit for his intent but I’m not sure the execution came out in the end.

There was a lot of swearing.  A lot.  I think it’s because most of Shorty’s friends listen to American hip-hop and rap and, like most second-language learners, the swear words sound cool to them.  So they end up overusing them.  Again, I get the intent, but after a while it’s overdone and it just seems like bad writing.  Another word of caution, there’s a lot of voodoo in the book.  It’s done is a socio-historical context, as voodoo is an official religion in Haiti, and while it’s not something I’m interested in or enjoy reading about I thought Lake handled it honestly and tastefully.

It’s sad that after so much time, a lot hasn’t changed about Haiti.  I wonder what Toussaint would actually think if he were to see Haiti today.  I think he’d be happy the nation is still independent and that there is no slavery, but I think he’d be saddened that the people’s lives aren’t much better than they were when he was alive.  I think Lake is challenging us to remember that while we see violence and corruption on the tv, we should be careful of dehumanizing the people.  As one of the characters says in the book,
“once you hold a gun, it’s easy to let the gun do the thinking.”

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

I’ve been on a quest to read more current young adult literature to augment the classic literature I hand out in class.  Basically, I need to find more modern and contemporary pieces that I can recommend that are outside of the typical “classic literature” cannon.  So I turned to reading my way through the Printz awards.  Many of the well-known young adult authors got their starts from the promotion of this award and I haven’t read a book from this list that I didn’t like.

AristotleOne of them that caught my attention was called Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.  The title alone made me wonder what it was about plus it’s won several other awards including the Stonewall and Lambda awards, both of which are awards for LGBT young adult literature.  I wanted to dig a little deeper since the summary on the back of the book mentioned only a friendship between Aristotle and Dante, yet it had won awards from the LGBT community so I figured there must be a character who comes out in the book or both characters are dealing with coming out or something along those lines.  I haven’t read any literature featuring LGBT young people and I want to have a good piece of literature in case any of my students do come out or are looking to understand a new perspective due to a friend or relative coming out.

I’m the sort of reader who likes to guess the ending of the book without actually jumping ahead and reading.  It’s a game I play with myself to keep me reading and engaged with the text.  So knowing that one of the boys in the book was going to come out, I was constantly on the look out for any clues that would let me guess which one.  I won’t give anything away, but I’ll tell you I wasn’t able to guess but I wasn’t shocked when it was revealed.  The author was very careful to avoid stereotypes and yet not go the other extreme and have a character that was unbelievable as a gay teen come out.  Instead, the author uses his almost poetic style to bring the reader into the minds of the characters and the circumstances of the plot so that we are there with them.  Saenz excels at showing not telling.

I can’t say much more without really spoiling everything but what I will say is that until the very end I was really, really into the book.  Like I read it all in a Sunday afternoon.  Ignored the grading, the football games, my football picks, and getting dressed for the day.  It was that good of a book.  And what I appreciated about the book wasn’t that it wasn’t all about homosexuality.  There were a lot of conflicts that made the characters real and keep the plot moving forward.

But I didn’t like the ending.  It wasn’t bad from a writing sense.  And he doesn’t lose steam from a plot sense.  But I think he betrays the characters a little bit and panders to the audience.  And that was really disappointing. Disappointing because it could have gone to a place that would’ve reached a wider male audience but I’m pretty sure most teen guys, those at least who give it a chance knowing there might be a gay teen in it, might feel a little betrayed by the ending.  Betrayed in the sense that the book made readers (i.e. me) think we had figured everything out but suddenly we get to the ending and blam!  It turns a 90 degree corner and we end exactly where I didn’t see us going.  Or maybe this is me and I missed the signs the whole way.  Ultimately, the ending didn’t sit well with me.

I’d still recommend this book for the writing and story.  I think it’s a good example of how good writing and an honest story can transport readers into a book and they lose themselves to time and responsibility.  Isn’t that what good reading’s supposed be?