The Plot: A young man is trapped in darkness: one minute he is in his hospital bed, the next the building is rubble around him and he is alive but there is no way out. He will tell you a story, his story, of how he came to this place, of the people he killed, of the things he’s done. Call him Shorty; it’s not his name, but it’s what his friends call him.
Shorty struggles, to find a way out, to not succumb to thirst or hunger or fear.
That is “now.” There is also “then,” the stories about another man of Haiti: not a young teen, not lost boy, but, instead, a grown man named Toussaint l’Ouverture, the slave who will free Haiti in the late eighteenth century.
The stories flip back and forth, between a teen surviving in modern-day Haiti and the man who led the Haitian Revolution.
The Good: Much as I love being able to cheer about a well-loved book getting recognized by the Printz Committee, I also love being able to read a book thinking, why this one? Why did the Printz Committee give this book an Award or an Honor?
In Darkness was awarded a Printz Award; and one of the first reasons I can see for this happening? The multiple meanings “In Darkness” has. Shorty is in literal darkness, trapped following the 2010 earthquake, but he is also trapped in the darkness of his life: the gangs, the violence, the lost friends and family, the death, the poverty. Likewise, Toussaint will face his own challenges, his own darkness, in his time, as he leads his country to freedom.
The structure of In Darkness is also terrific. There is the alternating between Shorty’s story Now and Toussaint’s Then, telling two stories at once. Not only are there sometimes parallels between the two; Lake makes a bold decision to have the two be aware of each other. Something happens (more on that below) and both are half-aware of the other. Toussaint, seeing the future, doesn’t understand all he sees but latches onto one thing: black men and women are free.
The language: Shorty’s and Toussaint’s stories are told differently, with the language indicating their different time periods, their knowledege, their worlds.
While “learning new things” is not a reason for a book to get a Printz nod, it is a reason for me to like a book. Here, I learned much more than I knew before about the history of Haiti, as well as Haiti today. It is clear that Shorty’s story is being told from his own, unique perspective and his own loyalties.
“Something happens”: part of what is explored in Haiti is vodou and the role of vodou in history and culture. I liked how vodou was treated not as some type of supernatural/magical/mystical force, but as a religion. As a religion, some people believe and others are skeptical.