Saturday, April 06, 2013

Book Review: Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian

Book: Out of Nowhere
Author: Maria Padian
Published: 2013
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley

Tom's family has lived in Ennistown for generations. His grandparents and his parents were born in this little Maine town, filled with French-Canadian blue-collar workers. But Tom's Ennistown is changing, as waves of Somalian refugees pour in. He pays little attention to his new neighbors, except for the new Somali players on his soccer team, who play a kind of soccer he's never seen before.

When a stupid prank on a rival school forces Tom into community service at the local Somali center, he starts to learn more about his teammates, especially Saeed, the soccer star who barely speaks any English. He learns the importance of their faith, some of the intricacies of their culture, and the nightmarish background that brought them to the States.

But not everybody in Ennistown is as willing to learn, accept, and support. Tensions and suspicions ratchet up, and Tom and Saeed will find themselves caught square in the middle of them.

Full disclosure: I work in a public library in a refugee-heavy neighborhood. Where this book really made me sit up straight and pay attention was a scene from Tom's first visit to the K Street Center, when he encounters an eight-year-old Somali boy struggling in school. "Holy crap," I said aloud, "that's one of our kids!" He would have fit in with no problems.

Tom is a good kid, basically decent. Even before his community service, he's a team player and a leader, a loyal friend, fair-minded and looking out for the little guy. That's probably why I went along with some of his more obtuse moments, like how long it took for him to grasp that somebody might not know their own birthdate with the certainty that we do in the United States of Paperwork and his attempts to interact with a Somali girl as if she were an American.

My favorite part was the light touches that emphasize Tom's own immigrant roots. His last name is Bouchard, and he's surrounded by other French names. His mere (not grandma) serves a French dessert for Sunday brunch, and it's a treat greeted by universal cheers. He talks about his great-aunt being unable to go into a mill where she once worked in near-indentured-servitude conditions. It's a clear but gentle reminder that very few people ever found America's streets paved with gold, no matter when they came.

Unfortunately, Saeed is a very flat character. Part of this is undoubtedly the language barrier combined with the tight third-person point of view. Because Tom doesn't get to hear much of Saeed's inner life, neither do we. Mostly what we get is the broken English, the astonishing soccer skill, and occasional noble leadership moments.

I found myself much more interested in Saeed's sister Samira, a teen girl clearly caught between cultures. She was another one I recognized, trying to be an American girl and a Somali girl at the same time, trying to work out where she wanted to land on the spectrum between two identities, trying to navigate where she was allowed to land. It is the strange and standoffish relationship (not like that, you guys) between Tom and Samira that ultimately brings the book to its climax.

Not only was this a good book (the slightly fizzling-out end notwithstanding), it's an important book for many communities like my own and Ennistown,

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