Books: Ruta Sepetys’ story of vice and victory in the Big Easy

Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 11:53pm
By Tina LoTufo Chapter16.org

“My mother’s a prostitute,” observes 17-year-old Josie Moraine. “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.” Thus begins Out of the Easy, the new young-adult novel from Nashville author Ruta Sepetys, whose first novel, Between Shades of Gray, was a bestselling blockbuster that earned critical raves and more than one international literary prize. Her new novel will remind readers of classic coming-of-age stories like Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

When Josie and her mother, Louise, move to New Orleans from Detroit in 1940, Louise soon finds work in a French Quarter brothel run by hard-as-nails businesswoman Willie Woodley. By the time she is10, Josie has learned to hide from her mother’s violent and unpredictable temper in nearby Marlowe’s Bookshop, where Charlie Marlowe provides a refuge for the frightened young girl. Josie soon falls in love with the world of books, imagining another kind of life for herself as she escapes into the pages of her favorite novels.

At 17, Josie has a job working as a housemaid in Willie’s establishment. Each morning she gathers any valuable or contraband items “lost” by customers the night before and presents them to Willie to keep or to discreetly return, as prudence and good business dictate. Josie also carries a pistol hidden beneath her skirt and knows how to use it: The Quarter is home to some dangerous characters, including vicious small-time hustler Cincinnati, who holds sway over Louise.

Josie does have allies in the Quarter. There is Charlie’s son, Patrick, her closest friend and trusted confidant; handsome Jesse Thiery, a street-smart mechanic who seems to single out Josie over his many female admirers; Cokie, Willie’s dark-skinned chauffeur and Josie’s most ardent protector; and Willie herself, who takes Josie under her wing and plans a better future for her. But Josie’s dreams are not the same as her benefactor’s: “Willie said normal was boring and that I should be grateful that I had a touch of spice,” Josie notes. “She said no one cared about boring people, and when they died, they were forgotten, like something that slips behind the dresser. Sometimes I wanted to slip behind the dresser. Being normal sounded perfectly wonderful.”

Sepetys paints New Orleans as a city of extremes. She skillfully contrasts both the old-money snobbery and the new-money social climbing of sophisticated Uptown with the squalid atmosphere of the French Quarter, home to artists, writers, and musicians, as well as to poverty, hopelessness and organized crime. On both sides of the divide are sharply defined lines of social and racial separation. Drawn by the promise of the exotic and illicit, outsiders enter the maelstrom of the city, hoping to sample its delights without succumbing to its dangers.

One such outsider is wealthy Memphis architect Forrest Hearne, who meets Josie in the bookshop and talks with her about their mutual love of David Copperfield. Though their conversation is brief, Josie is profoundly affected by Hearne, who alludes to his own rough beginnings and gives her some advice: “Decisions, they shape our destiny.” Afterward, she adds his name to the list of “fantasy fathers” she keeps hidden in a drawer. “Willie said fathers were overrated, that my father could be one of thousands,” Josie says, but she cannot help wondering: “So the game continued, and for years I added names to the list, imagining that 50 percent of me was somehow respectable instead of rotten.”

Not long after she meets Hearne, another stranger walks into the bookshop and changes Josie’s life yet again: young, charming, and socially progressive Charlotte Gaines forms an immediate attachment to her. When Josie expresses her desire to go to college, Charlotte insists that she apply to Smith College in Massachusetts, the school Charlotte attends. As their friendship grows, Josie begins to imagine how different her life might be at Smith, where no one would see her as “the girl whose mother was a whore.”

But Smith seems like an impossible dream — the path ahead fraught with seemingly insurmountable roadblocks. And when Forrest Hearne suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances, Josie struggles to make sense of the world in which she lives, and her suspicions begin to grow about the people she loves and the secrets and lies that ultimately define and control all their lives. As Josie tries to figure out what kind of a person she wants to be and just how far she is willing to go to get what she wants, Cokie gives her a warning: “Let me tell you something ”bout those rich Uptown folk. They got everything that money can buy, their bank accounts are fat, but they ain’t happy. They ain’t ever gone be happy. You know why? They soul broke. And money can’t fix that, no sir.”

Out of the Easy is peopled with characters that might have descended into stereotype, but Sepetys fleshes them out slowly through small, carefully observed details that prove the difference between caricature and character. And she successfully sustains the suspense as Josie fights her way forward to clear-eyed self-knowledge and a better future, one small yet profound victory at a time.

For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.