Josie Moraine has been mixing martinis since the age of 7, keeping her own apartment since she was 11, and when, at the age of 17, I came to know her as the protagonist of Ruta Sepetys’s newest novel, Out of the Easy, I just knew that she had a story I wanted to hear–especially when her first words are: “My mother’s a prostitute.”
The setting of the novel is 1950s New Orleans—the underbelly of New Orleans where gangsters, prostitutes, and successful men from Uptown mingle. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but Sepetys deftly swept me into the French Quarter and into the house of successful madam, Willie Woodley, in such a way that, by the end of the story, I felt like I had. At first glance, Willie seems like a hard-nosed, tough as nails type of lady, but it soon becomes evident that she has a soft heart, particularly when it comes to Josie. In fact, she’s the closest thing that Josie has to a real mother, since her own mother is one of the most unlikable characters in literary history with almost no redeeming qualities.
The story revolves around the growing number of problems that Josie faces. First, there’s the problem of school. Josie’s smart, and she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life “cleaning a bawdy house, being leered at as the daughter of a French Quarter prostitute.” When she meets a nice, upper-class girl named Charlotte, who attends the prestigious Smith College, she begins dreaming of going there as well, but she lacks the pedigree, and, more importantly, the money to get there.
Then, there’s the issue of Charlie. Charlie Marlowe is the author and bookshop owner who has let Josie work in his shop and live in the apartment above his shop since she was eleven. A devastating robbery has left him in an unstable mental state, but if people find out that he’s been spending his days mumbling incoherently and clutching a pink Valentine’s box to his chest, he’ll be locked away in a mental hospital. Charlie’s son, Patrick, and Josie must try to keep Charlie under control and the shop afloat on their own.
If that weren’t enough, Josie’s mother is wanted in connection with the recent murder of a traveling businessman and has run off to Hollywood with a no-good gangster named Cincinnati. That leaves Josie with a heap of questions, a watch belonging to the dead man, and a black mark from the mob.
Oh, and I almost forgot the question of Josie’s love life. She is torn between her feelings for Patrick, with whom she shares so many interests and secrets, and Jesse, the handsome grease monkey who’s always trying to convince her that she likes him.
So, with all of these problems on her shoulders, Josie begins to weave an intricate tapestry of lies and cover-ups for the purpose of protecting those that she loves, as well as herself. A line from the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield turns up several times in this book: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether this station will be held by anybody else these pages must show.” This line is at the heart of Josie’s story. Her decisions will shape her destiny, but can she rise above her background, her problems, and the web of lies she’s created to become the hero of her own life? Well, you’ll have to read the book yourself to see how that plays out.
Whenever I read a YA book, I always try to look at the story through the eyes of my students, asking myself what they will relate to when they read this book. With Out of the Easy it was a simple answer. Even though my students are living in Ohio in the 21st century, many of them have a lot in common with 1950s New Orleans Josie—they have problems that weigh heavily on them each day, they have absent parents, or parents who, like Josie’s, make selfish or unhealthy decisions, they wonder if their future will take them out of their current situation. But, just like Josie and David Copperfield before her, they have the power to be the heroes of their own lives. And many of them will.
Gretchen Schroeder teaches 11th and 12th grade English at Millersport High School in Ohio. She sets her alarm early on weekends to read in peace. Missing her monthly book club constitutes a deadly sin in her eyes. And, most people who know her would agree that she needs an Amazon intervention. Her mission is to turn all of her students into book lovers before they leave high school. You can read her blog at gretchensmeattoast.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter @GretchenSchroe1.