Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys: Behind the Po’ Boys and Jazz Clubs.
“My mother’s a prostitute,” begins the hardscrabble young adult novel, Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, and you’re immediately sucked in by the clear-eyed voice of young Josie Moraine. A new high school graduate in the 1950s, she’s been living on her own for the past seven years – she works in a French Quarter bookstore in exchange for a little room upstairs that she calls home. She is also a “personal assistant to a local family”; that is, every morning she heads to the cathouse run by a brusque but kind madam, Willie, to wash away the detritus of the last evening’s activities – including cleaning up her mother’s bedroom.
There are bright spots in her life; she works with close friend Patrick Marlowe, who runs the bookshop with his dear father, Charlie. Jo recognizes and accepts her mother’s limitations in the mothering department -- and they are considerable. (Mother is no “hooker with a heart of gold.”) But she also hears her classmates’ whispers as they talk about her mother, and Jo knows she has to get out of New Orleans for a fresh start. But with little support and guidance, she isn’t quite sure where to find her escape route, although she is caching money in a box under her bed’s floorboards for this possibility.
Right after New Year’s Day, a college girl named Charlotte Gates wanders into the shop, and unwittingly provides Jo with her exit plan: Smith College. Charlotte also invites Jo and Patrick to a party at her house, giving Jo an entrée into the very different world of the wealthy. But Jo quickly realizes that world isn’t all it appears to be when she spies one of the wealthy married men leaving the cathouse one day soon after.
What follows isn’t easy: Charlie’s mind starts deteriorating, and quickly; Mother’s “love,” a violent pimp named Cincinnati, threatens Jo and takes off with her mother; and a mob heavy shows up at Jo’s door demanding repayment of the $5,000 they skipped out on. By next week. Or else. Oh, and it seems Mother was seen having drinks with a tourist who turned up very dead the next day.
But she has Patrick, her high school friend Jesse Thierry, and Charlie, Willie, and Cokie (Willie’s driver) to rely on. She knows how to fire a gun and mix a mean cocktail. She’s starting to have somewhat confusing feelings for Jesse and Patrick. After much soul-searching, she applies to Smith, wrangles a recommendation letter from Charlotte’s uncle, and begins the agonizing wait for a response.
Jo grapples with many difficult questions: Is she good enough for Smith? What is she willing to do to assure her escape, and do the ends always justify the means? She suffers loss and heartbreak, but also finds love and acceptance – and help where she may not expect it. And while her plans may not work out as she envisioned (bravo to the author for not relying on a fairy-tale ending), this resourceful, headstrong, resilient girl manages to make an escape – and leaves you cheering for her future.