Published: February 12th, 2013
Genre: Historical fiction
Age group: Young adult
Grade rate: A+
It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer.
She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.
This is one of the most beautifully crafted books I’ve ever read. Ruta Sepetys writes so fluidly; dexterity and restraint perforate her style. It’s as if the words are falling across the page. Her storytelling is daring and crystalline, and it keeps you thinking long after the last page is turned.
Josie Moraine is the daughter of a prostitute. Her mother lives in the gutter and she has no plans to leave it – but Jo is everything her mother is not, and she knows she can’t let the Big Easy drag her down.
There are a lot of contenders in the literary world for the title of Worst Mother in History, but I think it’s safe to assume Josie’s mother trumps them all. It’s not her profession that defines her. Some of the brothel cast are wonderful – in an environment we would assume strips all their power and worth from them, they are strong, strangely empowered and surprisingly self-righteous. Dora in particular stands out here. Josie’s mother is nothing like these colourful and vibrant characters. She is spineless, uncaring and vague in that way that makes you think she probably wasn’t born with the ability for self-respect. As a reader you want all characters to somehow be redeemed, but with Josie’s mother most will be hoping to see her sink down further and stay there.
Jo, on the other hand, is absolutely brilliant. She’s seen the bottom, and she knows she never wants to see it again. I loved that she kept her wits about her and never denied the fact that her escape from New Orleans would be difficult. She’s not an air-headed dreamer. She’s level-headed and practical. That said, she can still whip out a gun faster than a man could blink, and she is incredibly, fantastically brave. She has ambitions that lie beyond the sleazy confines of New Orleans - but the city has other plans in mind for her. The seedy underbelly of the Quarter tries to sink its claws into her at every turn, and she has no choice but to fight her way out if she's to survive at all.
In Ruta’s previous book, Between Shades of Gray, there’s emphasis on tragedy lost in the swarming quagmire of modern history. Unfortunately, I found it didn’t fully come to life – I was devastated by the story, but I was more affected by the harrowing events of the narrative than the perspective of the characters within it. There is no such discrepancy here. 1950s New Orleans is a shady world, so far unexplored by young adult fiction. Sepetys takes the opportunity to play with the era. It is no less historically accurate but there is more flamboyance, more excitement, more theatricality, and I really enjoyed that.
The New Orleans of Josie's experience is both lively and disgusting; it's dirt poor and super rich. All her memories are wrapped up in a world of women selling themselves to men in return for pearl necklaces and enough money to fuel their addictions for another week, but Jo wants more than that from her life. She wants education; she wants self-worth and the strength to stand on her own two feet. Love doesn't even cross her radar until she begins to feel it for herself.
I adore Jesse. He's so perfect for Jo. He's a kind of James Dean figure in the book, leaning on his battered car and looking all handsome, but he too has a past he'd rather leave behind. Their romance was sweet but not without strife - a fantastically balanced addition to a book which pushes us to the very limits of what we can imagine as readers.
Out of the Easy is a character-driven novel but it doesn’t just follow their lives. A well-planned plot surrounds them, and though the book is slow to start, fans of alternative historical fiction as well as mysteries will appreciate the complex and criminal murder plot. If I had to choose between the coming-of-age story and the crime-solving, I’d take the coming-of-age, but it’s a great addition to the novel and really makes it stands out from the crowd.
Some books have nice flow; a good line here and there. Out of the Easy is a waterfall. It is not immediately perfect; it teeters on the edge of the precipice, and then within its final chapters, it tumbles into the abyss of pure magnificence.
Out of the Easy, for me, has all the hallmarks of a classic.