This plot would be enough to hook me, but author Nick Lake makes IN DARKNESS more compelling by alternating Shorty's story with a third person account of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian slave who led a successful revolution against the French in the late 18th century. It is a powerful juxtaposition to pair Toussaint's hope and love for his beautiful nation and Shorty's despair in the slums of Port au Prince. Touissant's life is fascinating; as an older, unattractive, and uneducated slave, he is not the typical hero. Yet he accomplishes the seemingly impossible with wisdom and grace.
As much as I enjoyed learning more about Toussaint L'Ouverture, I found myself looking forward to Shorty's chapters. His plot feels so immediate and vital. The transformation of the character of Shorty is very clever. Initially, he comes across as an innocent victim of the earthquake, then his story slowly unfolds and the reader learns about the terrible things he has done. Just when he borders on unsympathetic, Lake deftly reminds the reader that there are few options available to youths in the slums and that Shorty manages to keep his humanity. Shorty describes his best friend, saying, "Sometimes I'd look at him and it was like he'd forgotten to put the shutters over his eyes, and I'd see right down to his soul, and see how much he was hurting. He was unprotected, is the best way I can say it. His manman died when he was little, and there was nothing about him that could keep bad stuff out." At times it is difficult to remember that the characters are children, but that is the power of IN DARKNESS; the reality hits the reader unexpectedly.
We need more young adult literature about Haiti. This is a country that is frequently in the news for tragedies, yet there is a dearth of narratives that encourage a personal connection with the people being affected. When teaching a unit on Haitian immigration to Bahamian students, we read Frances Temple's TASTE OF SALT, but that was the only fiction text that was available for middle school readers. IN DARKNESS is for older readers; the violence is explicit and the dead-end lives of the residents of the Site Soley slums weigh heavily on the reader. The publication of Lake's novel will hopefully only be the beginning of a wave of novels informing readers about life in modern Haiti.
Read more of my reviews at www.bookchomper.blogspot.com.
The contrast of history and modern life is jarring and well-done.