Ashley Hope Pérez is not an easy book. There is no comfort in it. It tells the story of Naomi Vargas and weaves it together with the aftermath of the 1937 New London school explosion.
Naomi is a Hispanic girl who moves with her half brother and sister into her stepfather’s home after the death of her mother. Her transition to New London is not smooth. She encounters racism on all sides and because she is the only obviously Mexican girl around she becomes very isolated.
The way that Ashley Ashley Hope Pérez writes this historical novel feels very modern. Naomi feels like a real girl who is out of her elements and unsure about how to handle her life. It also explored the frustration and isolation that come from not being able or not being allowed to speak your first language.
The historical detail is very well done. You really feel the richness of the world without being hit over the head with the authors research. It is balanced with the overarching big picture tragedy. There is an authenticity to the way that the characters speak and act.
It is easy to forget how recently our country was segregated and how that segregation was upheld by intense vigilante violence. It is something that I am aware of and yet every time that I read a book on the subject I am again shocked. There is no sugarcoating of history here. I like that it is shining a light on a time in history that is usually whitewashed. America has never been lily white and too often in books we are not shown that.
The love story was slow to develop and realistic. It was also terrifying. I love Naomi and Wash as a couple. I was hoping that the world would sort of rearrange itself and they would be okay at the same time I was afraid that taking this risk of love was going to lead to disaster.
I found her stepfather’s character to be particularly horrifying and creepy. And can we take a moment to be properly horrified that he is actually advised at one point by his preacher to marry his stepdaughter because he lusts after he. Let me remind you that she is fifteen and has in no way indicated that this would be something that she would want. Also, gross. Even thinking about it is making me shudder.
This is a book that makes you feel. It hurt to read. The aftermath of the disaster will break your heart. I am going to be thinking about this book for a long time to come.