Historical fiction is a genre of writing that includes such diverse themes and time periods as the magic of King Arthur’s Court and the gritty realism of the Vietnam War. In “Out of the Easy,” Ruta Sepetys takes us to 1950’s era New Orleans for a story of a young girl forced to grow up too soon.
Josie Moraine is 17 years old at the start of the story. The daughter of a prostitute, she has made her own way in the world since age 10, when she started hiding in a bookstore at closing time. On her 11th birthday the owner of the store, Charlie Marlowe, transforms the extra office where she had been sleeping into a bedroom with curtains, a real bed, and a lock on the door. Josie and Mr. Marlowe never spoke of the arrangement; Josie simply starts working in the store to pay for her lodging. Through her hard work and love of books, Josie has become well read, a good student, and not sure what her next steps will be.
Although Josie has raised herself, her mother is not out of the picture. A “…quite pretty, fairly well spoken” woman (according to Josie), Louise works for an upscale madam in the French Quarter. This madam, Willie, is more a mother to Josie than Louise, and keeps Josie close by having her clean the house early in the morning, before business picks up for the day. Willie helps Josie in more ways than one, keeping her safe from Louise and her boyfriend, a disreputable character that goes by the moniker “Cincinnati”. Louise and Cincinnati are not kind to Josie, and their machinations threaten to pull Josie and everyone she cares about under a rising tide of crime.
The story revolves around murder, blackmail, and Josie’s dream of leaving New Orleans and her mother’s reputation far behind. Through her work at the bookstore, Josie meets a young woman attending Smith College. This plants the seed for Josie’s escape plan, and throughout the majority of the book this seed grows into a dream of a new life which makes the reader keenly aware of the challenges this era presented for a young woman of Josie’s background and intellect. Through her wits and some less reputable skills she learned from her mother, Josie receives a coveted letter of recommendation to Smith, and completes her application right before the deadline. Considering that she manages this while under threat of death from Cincinnati and the gangsters he is beholden to, it is no small feat.
This book is a fast read with emotional highs and lows that keep the reader engaged. The characters are realistic and believable, and the plot thickens in unexpected ways. The author manages to bring the story to a satisfying close while at the same time leaving Josie’s future open ended. Readers will find this book a page turner, and the glimpse of life in New Orleans in the early 1950s fascinating.
Deana Cunningham is the Branch Manager at May Memorial Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.