CHAPTER ONE: 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 straight to a fancy hotel on St. Charles Avenue. Mother met a man from Tuscaloosa in the lobby while having a drink. She introduced me as her niece and told the man she was delivering me to her sister. She winked at me constantly and whispered that she'd buy me a doll if I just played along and waited for her. I slept alone in the lobby that night, dreaming of my new doll. The next morning, Mother checked us in to our own big room with tall windows and small round soaps that smelled like lemon. She received a green velvet box with a strand of pearls from the man from Tuscaloosa. "Josie, this town is going to treat us just fine," said Mother, standing topless in front of the mirror, admiring her new pearls. The next day, a dark-skinned driver named Cokie arrived at the hotel. Mother had received an invitation to visit someone important in the Quarter. She made me take a bath and insisted I put on a nice dress. She even put a ribbon in my hair. I looked silly, but I didn't say anything to Mother. I just smiled and nodded. "Now, Josie, you aren't to say a thing. I've been hoping Willie would call for me, and I don't need you messing things up with your stubbornness. Don't speak unless you're spoken to. And for gosh sakes, don't start that humming. It's spooky when you do that. If you're good, I'll buy you something real special." "Like a doll?" I said, hoping to jog her memory. "Sure, hon, would you like a doll?" she said, finishing her sweep of lipstick and kissing the air in front of the mirror. Cokie and I hit it off right away. He drove an old taxicab painted a foggy gray. If you looked close, you could see the ghost of taxi lettering on the door. He gave me a couple Mary Jane candies and a wink that said, "Hang in there, kiddo." Cokie whistled through the gaps in his teeth as he drove us to Willie's in his taxicab. I hummed along, hoping the molasses from the Mary Jane might yank out a tooth. That was the second night we were in New Orleans. We pulled to a stop on Conti Street. "What is this place?" I asked, craning my neck to look at the pale yellow building with black lattice balconies. "It's her house," said Cokie. "Willie Woodley's." "Her house? But Willie's a man's name," I said. "Stop it, Josie. Willie is a woman's name. Now, keep quiet!" said Mother, smacking my thigh. She smoothed her dress and fidgeted with her hair. "I didn't think I'd be so nervous," she muttered. "Why are you nervous?" I asked. She grabbed me by the hand and yanked me up the walk. Cokie tipped his hat to me. I smiled and waved back. The sheers in the front window shifted, covering a shadowy figure lit by an amber glow behind the glass. The door opened before we reached it. "And you must be Louise," a woman said to Mother. A brunette in a velvet evening dress hung against the door. She had pretty hair, but her fingernails were chewed and frayed. Cheap women had split nails. I'd learned that in Detroit. "She's waitin' for you in the parlor, Louise," said the brunette. A long red carpet ran from the front door to a tall staircase, crawling up and over each step. The house was opulent, gaudy, with deep green brocades and lamps with black crystals dangling from dimly lit shades. Paintings of nude women with pink nipples hung from the foyer walls. Cigarette smoke mingled with stale Eau de Rose. We walked through a group of girls who patted my head and called me sugar and doll. I remember thinking their lips looked like someone had smeared blood all over them. We walked into the front parlor. I saw her hand first, veiny and pale, draped over the arm of an upholstered wingback. Her nails, glossy red like pomegranate seeds, could pop a balloon with a quick flick. Clusters of gold and diamonds adorned nearly every finger. Mother's breathing fluttered. I approached the hand, staring at it, making my way around the back of the chair toward the window. Black heels poked out from beneath a stiff tailored skirt. I felt the bow in my hair slide down the side of my head. "Hello, Louise." The voice was thick and had mileage on it. Her platinum-blond hair was pulled tight in a clasp engraved with the initials W.W. The woman's eyes, lined in charcoal, had wrinkles fringing out from the corners. Her lips were scarlet, but not bloody. She was pretty once. The woman stared at me, then finally spoke. "I said, 'Hello, Louise.'" "Hello, Willie," said Mother. She dragged me in front of the chair. "Willie, this is Josie." I smiled and bent my scabby legs into my best curtsy. The arm with the red nails quickly waved me away to the settee across from her. Her bracelet jangled a discordant tune. "So . . . you've returned." Willie lifted a cigarette from a mother-of-pearl case and tapped it softly against the lid. "Well, it's been a long time, Willie. I'm sure you can understand." Willie said nothing. A clock on the wall swung a ticktock rhythm. "You look good," Willie finally said, still tapping the cigarette against its case. "I'm keeping myself," said Mother, leaning back against the settee. "Keeping yourself . . . yes. I heard you had a greenhorn from Tuscaloosa last night." Mother's back stiffened. "You heard about Tuscaloosa?" Willie stared, silent. "Oh, he wasn't a trick, Willie," said Mother, looking into her lap. "He was just a nice fella." "A nice fella who bought you those pearls, I guess," said Willie, tapping her cigarette harder and harder against the case. Mother's hand reached up to her neck, fingering the pearls. "I've got good business," said Willie. "Men think we're headed to war. If that's true, everyone will want their last jollies. We'd work well together, Louise, but . . ." She nodded in my direction. "Oh, she's a good girl, Willie, and she's crazy smart. Even taught herself to read." "I don't like kids," she spat, her eyes boring a hole through me. I shrugged. "I don't like 'em much either." Mother pinched my arm, hard. I felt the skin snap. I bit my lip and tried not to wince. Mother became angry when I complained. "Really?" Willie continued to stare. "So what do you do . . . if you don't like kids?" "Well, I go to school. I read. I cook, clean, and I make martinis for Mother." I smiled at Mother and rubbed my arm. "You clean and make martinis?" Willie raised a pointy eyebrow. Her sneer suddenly faded. "Your bow is crooked, girl. Have you always been that skinny?" "I wasn't feeling well for a few years," said Mother quickly. "Josie is very resourceful, and--" "I see that," said Willie flatly, still tapping her cigarette. I moved closer to Mother. "I skipped first grade altogether and started in the second grade. Mother lost track I was supposed to be in school--" Mother's toe dug into my ankle. "But it didn't matter much. She told the school we had transferred from another town, and I just started right in second grade." "You skipped the first grade?" said Willie. "Yes, ma'am, and I don't figure I missed anything at all." "Don't ma'am me, girl. You'll call me Willie. Do you understand?" She shifted in her chair. I spied what looked like the butt of a gun stuffed down the side of the seat cushion. "Yes, Mrs. Willie," I replied. "Not Mrs. Willie. Just Willie." I stared at her. "Actually, Willie, I prefer Jo, and honestly, I don't much care for bows." I pulled the ribbon from my thick brown bob and reached for the lighter on the table. "I didn't ask for a light," said Willie. "No, but you've tapped your cigarette fifty-three times . . . now fifty-four, so I thought you might like to smoke it." Willie sighed. "Fine, Jo, light my cigarette and pour me a Scotch." "Neat or on the rocks?" I asked. Her mouth opened in surprise, then snapped shut. "Neat." She eyed me as I lit her cigarette. "Well, Louise," said Willie, a long exhale of smoke curling above her head, "you've managed to mess things up royal, now, haven't you?" Mother sighed. "You can't stay here, not with a child. You'll have to get a place," said Willie. "I don't have any money," said Mother. "Sell those pearls to my pawn in the morning and you'll have some spending money. There's a small apartment on Dauphine that one of my bookies was renting. The idiot went and got himself shot last week. He's taking a dirt nap and won't need the place. The rent is paid until the thirtieth. I'll make some arrangements, and we'll see where you are at the end of the month." "All right, Willie," said Mother. I handed Willie the drink and sat back down, nudging the bow under the settee with my foot. She took a sip and nodded. "Honestly, Louise, a seven-year-old bartender?" Mother shrugged. That was ten years ago. She never did buy me the doll. Excerpted from Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
New York Times Review
|As a girl, I was obsessed with prostitutes. The hookers I saw on television wore silk kimonos and had cigarettes permanently attached to their lips - mean on the outside but like bruised baby birds on the inside. My experiences baby-sitting showed me I wasn't the only girl interested in a socalled life of sin. At 12, I once picked up a daisy-covered address book, to find only one entry, under P, Prostitute, followed by a list of massage parlor numbers. Josie Moraine, the heroine of Ruta Sepetys's "Out of the Easy," set in 1950 New Orleans, is a prostitute's daughter. Right away, this marks the book as different from the author's highly acclaimed first young adult novel, "Between Shades of Gray," which told the story of a 15-year-old Lithuanian confined to Stalin's labor camps. This new book opens in a fancy hotel, where Josie's mother, Louise, retreats with a John, leaving Josie, then 7, to sleep in the lobby. Soon her mother, a bad seed if ever there was one, is working as one of Willie Woodley's "nieces" in the city's French Quarter. The house interior is all dark brocade, black crystal chandeliers and paintings of women with exposed pink nipples. Josie, spirited and smart, prefers the local bookstore, where she hangs around so often that the owner, Charlie, gives her a room in the attic when she is 11. This retreat does not protect her completely. Men still leer, offering money for her virginity and asking her to wear high heels. Josie's days are equal parts sacred and profane. At night she reads E. M. Forster, and in the mornings, using rubber gloves, she cleans the bordello. The novel centers on a murder. A bookstore customer is killed late on the night of his visit, and Josie's mother may or may not be involved. While the plot points are initiated mostly by men - Louise's gangster boyfriend, Cincinnati; the mobster Tangle Eye; and the boss Carlos Marcello - the heart of "Out of the Easy" is its women. The bordello's inhabitants are predictably lovable: Sweety, a "quadroon girl," lives with her grandmother and washes her sheets herself. Dora, a buxom redhead, wears only green. Josie finds her "snoring in a collapsed bed with a melted ice pack between her legs." Evangeline, the solitary mean one, is a kleptomaniac who dresses up for a John in schoolgirl braids. Josie's mother is no real mother at all, coming to "parent day" naked underneath a full-length fur coat, stealing her daughter's college savings and worst of all, urging her boyfriend to rob and beat Josie's champion, Charlie. Only the madam, Willie, mothers Josie, showing up at her graduation, giving her a gold watch for her 18th birthday, offering to pay her college tuition (but only if she goes to school in New Orleans, not at Smith, which she'd like to attend). Willie is also an excellent shot, keeping her guns hidden in a golf bag. Sepetys based Willie on Norma Wallace, the last great madam of the French Quarter. Wallace was born into poverty but rose to become an underworld force in New Orleans for more than four decades. A lot happens in "Out of the Easy." Besides the murder, Josie finds out her coworker Patrick, the boy she has a crush on, is gay. She befriends Charlotte, a Smith student who shows her the upper echelons of New Orleans life. In the book's final movement, all hell breaks loose. Cops raid Willie's house. Louise slips town, leaving her daughter saddled with a mob debt. Fearing for her own life and for those she loves, Josie realizes she may have to get into the game and give up on her dreams. Sepetys writes these scenes with rawness and palpable emotional unease; most daughters fear they will become like their mothers, but for the daughters of prostitutes the stakes are momentous. While "Out of the Easy" is a satisfying novel, bringing to life the midcentury French Quarter, and Josie is beguiling when relating details of her world backstage at the cathouse, the gangsters are mostly flat and their interactions with Josie one-dimensional. Similarly, Willie and her nieces teeter perilously close to the cliché of the hooker with a heart of gold. I worry, given the allure of the subject for girls, that Sepetys softens the sadness and complexity of prostitution. Josie wants more for herself. She is smart, but her intelligence does not automatically free her from social confines. Like every young woman, Josie must negotiate a world where her body is valued over her mind. Her awareness of this difficult position may be what helps her get out of the Easy and into life. Darcey Steinke's most recent book is the memoir "Easter Everywhere."|
Publishers Weekly Review
|Sepetys follows her debut, Between Shades of Gray, with another taut and charged historical novel, though the setting-the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1950-is a world apart from that of her previous book. Living and working in a bookshop, 17-year-old Josie Moraine dreams of attending college-anything to get away from her mother, a prostitute with Hollywood dreams and a knack for getting involved with the worst men. When Josie becomes involved in a high-profile murder investigation, she becomes even more entrenched in her circumstances. The sensual yet rigidly class-based setting is a real standout, and Sepetys has also built a stellar cast, which includes Willie, a strident but generous madam; Charlie Marlowe, the bookshop's owner; and a pair of potential love interests for Josie. Readers will find Josie irresistible from the get-go ("The only reason I'd lift my skirt is to pull out my pistol and plug you," she tells a guy early on) and will devour the sultry mix of mystery, historical detail, and romance. Ages 14-up. Agent: Writers House. (Feb.)? (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.|
School Library Journal Review
|Gr 9 Up-Against a vivid 1950s New Orleans backdrop, 17-year-old Josie Moraine is caught between the harsh reality of her negligent, prostitute mother's lifestyle and her desire to escape to a new life. Josie is smart, resourceful, and determined. Her support group includes Willie, the shrewd brothel madam who recognizes Josie's potential; Cokie, Willie's kind and devoted driver; Patrick, who runs the bookshop where Josie works; Charlotte, an upscale acquaintance who encourages Josie to join her at Smith College; and Jesse, the handsome motorcyclist neighbor who has eyes only for Josie. When a mysterious death leads police to Josie's mother and abusive boyfriend, the teen is drawn into the investigation and into an underworld of threats, violence, and retribution. After her mother skips town, Josie is targeted to repay her debt to a powerful criminal boss. As she tries to handle mounting adversity on her own, she struggles with fear, desperation, and her conscience. Stealing from Willie or hooking up with a wealthy john seem her only choices for survival. Overwhelmed, she reveals her predicament to Willie, who saves her in a final act of generosity. Josie's narrative features a Dickensian array of characters; the mystique, ambience, and language of the French Quarter; a suspenseful, action-packed story; and a coming-of-age realization that personal decisions ultimately shape one's future. With dramatic and contextual flair, Sepetys introduces teens to another memorable heroine.-Gerry Larson, formerly at Durham School of the Arts, NC (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.|