Book Review: Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian

Tom Bouchard rules his school in Enniston, Maine.  He’s captain of the soccer team, third in his class, has a hot girlfriend and is pretty much guaranteed to have his pick of colleges.  But under the surface of the town, tensions are rising.  Because Enniston has become a haven for refugees in the post-9/11 world, Enniston’s resources are being stretched to the brink with the influx of Somali families.  When several Somali boys join the soccer team and out of nowhere help them beat a big rival, racial tensions–and questions about eligibility-come into play.

There’s a lot to unpack in Maria Padian’s ambitious novel about small towns, growing up, and the immigrant experience in the 21st century.  Padian tackles issues of religion, cultural identity, politics, immigration, addiction, loss, and much more.  All of it is balanced fairly well, which is to Padian’s credit.  She manages to craft a sympathetic and sensitive narrative about a small town struggling to adjust to a flood of immigrants, but the novel’s well-meaning lesson leaves some things to be desired.

Let’s start with the good: Tom is a compelling narrator for the most part, and it is interesting to frame a story about outsiders through the perspective of someone who is very much inside.  Tom has an incredible amount of privilege, even if he doesn’t realize it, and yet he remains sympathetic throughout the story because he is, at heart, a very nice guy.  This becomes increasingly apparent as he starts to spend time volunteering after school and working with Somali youth.  As the people in his town become actual people to him, Tom becomes more of a person to the reader as well.

This isn’t always true of the secondary and tertiary characters, which is too bad.  Tom struggles with the opposing viewpoints of his aunt and uncle, who often butt heads over politics and especially the immigrants in the town.  Whereas his uncle remains mostly steadfast about immigrants stealing jobs and housing from other residents who were there first, his uncle’s sister–Tom’s aunt–takes a much more sympathetic view.  Padian tries to add a bit of dimension to both characters, but it feels like too little, too late–and it is in moments like this that the book’s didactic tendencies are particularly observable.  There’s also a lot–a lot–of explaining of things to the readers, which is distracting and detrimental to the story.

Perhaps the thing this reader struggled with the most was the fact that Saeed and the other immigrants never become fully-fledged people over the course of the novel.  For a book purporting to be about the immigrant experience in America, it’s mostly about a native’s experience with immigrants.  This is another case of a white person telling–or collecting the stories of people of color.  Tom’s father even says at one point, “aren’t you lucky? Knowing all these stories,” which is sort of indicative of the novel’s biggest failing.

That being said, it’s a compelling read and a welcome addition to the YA world.  Despite reservations, this is a book that handles the topic sensitively and should have massive appeal for teens.

Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian. Knopf Books for Young Readers: 2013. Library copy read for 2013 Cybils.

 

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