In Darkness–Nick Lake (2012)

Lake, Nick.  In Darkness.  Bloomsbury, 2012.  352p.  Grades 9 and up.  Realistic/Historical Fiction.  (2013 Printz Award).

Fifteen year old Shorty is recovering from a gang-related gun shot wound in a Haitian hospital when the devastating earthquake of January 2010 hits.  Toussaint L’Ouverture is the fifty-four year old leader of Haiti’s eighteenth century slave rebellion.  The lives of these two men and the fate of the country they love are intertwined in an intoxicating mix of history, voodoo, brutality, and hope to create this complex and nuanced novel about the power of place, individuality, and joy in the midst of tragedy.

Thoughts-   This was the last book I read for the semester and I thought there was absolutely no way it could possibly be better or more deserving of accolades than Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity.  I was wrong (I enjoyed Verity more, but I ended up thinking In Darkness was the better book).  In Darkness is maybe the best example of interwoven narrators that I’ve ever read…and that’s saying a lot because I was really crazy about John Corey Whaley’s work in Where Things Come Back.  The transitions between Shorty and Toussaint are so smooth and the connection between the two narrators so imaginatively established that I didn’t even need the “Then/Now” chapter tags to discern what was going on—it all seemed completely seamless and logical to me.  I loved how Lake set up laid all the groundwork for readers to understand modern and historic Haitian religion, culture, and language and then linked those two time-periods together through the characters of Shorty and Toussaint.  I also loved how much I learned about modern Haiti (beyond just what I saw on the news post-earthquake) and about the 18th century slave rebellion (I knew L’Ouverture’s name but that was about it)—both men’s stories were so fascinating and finely drawn.

My one real criticism of the book is the lack of translation.  I read French but while Haitian Kreyole has its roots in French, it is a different beast altogether.  Lake does some paraphrase for the reader—he’ll write something in Kreyole and then give a brief description of what was said—but some of the words and phrases are never translated.  Some of these have enough context clues or appear often enough to discern their meaning (“anpil” and “moun” spring to mind), but many remained completely indecipherable to me.  I think some footnotes or a glossary would really have helped out a lot, and I know teens would struggle with the language as well.  Other than that and the somewhat hard sell of the L’Ouverture storyline, I think In Darkness has a lot of characteristics that make it really appealing to teens—it centers on an event in recent memory, it references musicians and pop culture touchstones teens will be familiar with, and it moves along at a ripping pace.  Despite my initial misgivings, I definitely ended up seeing why the Printz committee deemed it the most distinguished writing for young adults in 2012.

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