We’re a little late in getting this review to you–but late is better than never, right? In Darkness was our last selection of this year’s book group. It’s a really unique book, and one we all really enjoyed. This will be our last book review until August when we’ll be back with our first book for the new school year!
Written by Nick Lake
Published by Bloomsbury USA, 2012
Age Level: 14 and up
Book Summary: (From Goodreads)
In darkness I count my blessings like Manman taught me. One: I am alive. Two: there is no two. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake a boy is trapped beneath the rubble of a ruined hospital: thirsty, terrified and alone. ‘Shorty’ is a child of the slums, a teenage boy who has seen enough violence to last a lifetime, and who has been inexorably drawn into the world of the gangsters who rule Site Soleil: men who dole out money with one hand and death with the other. But Shorty has a secret: a flame of revenge that blazes inside him and a burning wish to find the twin sister he lost five years ago. And he is marked. Marked in a way that links him with Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian rebel who two-hundred years ago led the slave revolt and faced down Napoleon to force the French out of Haiti. As he grows weaker, Shorty relives the journey that took him to the hospital, a bullet wound in his arm. In his visions and memories he hopes to find the strength to survive, and perhaps then Toussaint can find a way to be free …
In Darkness isn’t an easy read. How could it be when it takes on the brutal past of a country born of the first slave revolution and the traumatic contemporary history of one of the world’s poorest countries? It’s a disturbing and serious read, but one which I think holds great value for both young adult and adult readers.
Haiti isn’t often taught about in k-12 schools, which is unfortunate. It’s a country with a powerful legacy as both the first Black Republic and the first country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery completely. Toussaint L’Ouverture rarely gets more than a passing reference in history books, even though he was the leader of what many consider the most successful slave revolution in history, and a pivotal figure in establishing Haiti’s freedom. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen L’Ouverture included in teaching units on historical heroes. I admit my own oversight in never including him in any number of thematic units where he would have been appropriate. I have my own thoughts on why we teach so little about Haiti or its historical heroes, but that’s a discussion for another time. I mention it here because it’s one reason I think In Darkness belongs on our classroom and library book shelves. I agree with other reviewers that it’s a challenging book to read, but it’s worth the effort, and it’s a strong start at filling the widespread gap in our knowledge of Haiti. I know of no other young adult book that offers such an interesting and historically based account of L’Ouverture’s life with L’Ouverture as one of the main protagonists.
I’m not always a fan of books written in alternating points of view, but it works well here. It made for a more engaging read and kept the story moving, which I think is really important since it is written on such a challenging topic that many students will have little background knowledge on. Shorty, our other main protagonist, offers us a picture of contemporary Haiti to contrast the historical voice of L’Ouverture. He is a teenage boy who convinces himself that joining a gang is the only way to gain revenge for the loss of both this father and twin sister. He’s not necessarily the type of character we typically find in young adult novels. He struggles, he makes bad decisions, he sells drugs and kills people. He’s also incredibly self-aware, even self-critical. He doesn’t lie to himself. He’s just the kind of character that may convince some of our more hesitant readers to give the book a chance.
Lake doesn’t sugarcoat his portrayal of Haiti. The contrasting stories from both the past and the present provide the context to allow discussions on recurring themes, patterns, and connections between Haiti’s history and its contemporary state. He’s critical of the French, the English, Aristide and UN involvement. His critique could be the start for an interesting discussion on foreign involvement in the governments of other countries. Shorty’s comments at the end of the book could be the basis for a critical classroom debate on foreign policy, responsibility and social justice: “These blancs, they look very proud, though, so I try to smile, cos I know how much they love to help, how much they’re always helping, how they can’t just mind their own zafé and keep off our island. Look where their help got us; look at the mess we’re in. . .” (p. 335).
There are no easy answers or solutions for Haiti, and Lake doesn’t attempt to offer any. In fact, whether the end of the novel is hopeful is debatable and up to the reader to decide. I hope you’ll check the book out for yourself and let us know what you think of it.
Click here to be taken to our Educator’s Guide for the book.
Click here to listen to Nick Lake discuss the book.