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Friday, May 23, 2014

Out of the Easy, written by Ruta Sepetys. speak, Penguin. 2013. $10.99 ages 14 and up

"My mother's a prostitute. Not the filthy, streetwalking kind. She's actually quite pretty, fairly well spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute. She started working in 1940 when I was seven, the year we moved from Detroit to New Orleans. We took a cab from the train station..."

Josie Moraine's story is bleak in so many ways; it does not deter the reader from being totally engaged in the people, the events (including a murder), the setting and the time period. I am in awe of Ruta Sepetys' writing and her ability to tell a harsh story while filling it with warmth and tenacity.

Josie doesn't want to be anything like her mother...who would? It has as much to do with her self-indulgence and rotten character as it does her line of work. Josie works in the brothel as a maid, cleaning rooms and listening to conversations so that she might keep Willie Woodley (the woman who runs it) apprised of everything that is happening within its walls. Josie does not live at Willie's. She has been living in the attic above a bookstore for six years (since she was eleven), taken in by for her own peace and safety. Now, she works there in lieu of paying rent. Owner Charlie Marlowe and  his son Patrick are like family to Josie.

Josie has big dreams. When she meets Charlotte, a young woman who attends Smith College, Josie sets her sights on attending that venerable institution. It is 1950, and getting into such a prestigious school is rare. Josie wants 'out of the Easy'. Willie wants her to stay in New Orleans and attend a local school. It isn't long until everything goes wrong, and Josie's dreams of a different life seem unattainable.

We come to know Josie very well. Her first person voice gives us a character who is emotional, satirical, smart as a whip, and incredibly astute. She knows well those who people her life, meets new bumps in the road with the savvy of a mature woman, and is determined that her life will get better.

Willie loves her as her mother never could. She is the mentor that Josie needs as she seeks to find her place in the world. She shows the reader some of the limitations that faced women in the mid-twentieth century, while giving Josie guidance in astute financing and protecting herself from circumstances beyond her own control.

The distinct voices, the depth of character, the details of Louisiana culture and life in the early 1950s all work to create a cohesive and engaging read. Josie will live long in your heart. Her story is filled with grit, determination and above all, hope.

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