This is Maria Paden’s third novel for young adults and, in terms of the social problematic it engages, her most ambitious. The story of Out of Nowhere is set in Lewiston, Maine (called Enniston in the book), an old, lackluster mill town many of whose residents descend from nineteenth-century French Canadian immigrants. In 2002 the town made headlines when Mayor Larry Raymond sent a letter to the town’s Somali immigrant community asking them to discourage their friends and relatives from coming to Lewiston, as its capacity to provide social services for the newcomers had been stretched beyond its limits. The controversy attracted national attention and occasioned both an intimidating march by members of the racist, Illinois-based Church of the Creator and a counterdemonstration organized by town residents, including students and faculty of Lewiston’s Bates College.
The incident itself plays a very minor role in the novel but it provides the setting and it is clear that the broader issue, the influx of a relatively large group of recent, African Muslim immigrants with large families into an overwhelmingly white, Christian, working class town, is the novel’s raison dêtre.
Out of Nowhere is the story of Tom Bouchard, a high school senior, captain of the school soccer team, boy friend of hot but empty-headed Cherisse, and scion of an old, now middle class French Canadian family. Fated to always be beaten by the well-resourced soccer team of the neighboring town, Tom’s soccer team receives – from its perspective out of nowhere - Somali players who are so good that they make beating the old rival a distinct possibility. However, the rich boys’ team’s fathers try to get the best Somali player, Tom’s friend Saeed, disqualified because as a refugee Saeed cannot not definitively prove his age. The crisis that ensues spins out of control when Tom’s hug of comfort to Saeed’s sister is photographed by resentful (now former) girlfriend Cherisse and turns into a case of cyber-bullying of the sister and undermining her reputation.
From an Africanist’s perspective, this novel has much to admire. Its portrayal of the Somali immigrant community is respectful and well informed. It allows for insights into the background of the Somali immigrants: their flight from civil war, family separation, long stays in dangerous refugee camps, and initial resettlement in poor and violent U.S. inner cities. This helps explain why Somalis ended up in Lewiston and why they are so wary and defensive of their cultural and religious ways. Padian, moreover, largely avoids romanticizing the Somalis. She depicts the latter as defensively and perhaps even somewhat rigidly Muslim as they struggle with their unfamiliar minority position as Black Muslims in the hostile and racist environments of post-9/11 America. (That one of the soldiers whose lifeless body was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu during the Black-Hawk-Down incident of October 1993 was a young man from Lewiston receives no mention in the novel. Padian also subtly notes the break lines within the Somali community (that between Somalis and the minority group of Somali Bantus).
If the novel’s depiction of the Somali characters has any shortcomings, it is that none of them really come into voice in the novel – not Saeed, our soccer hero, whose English is very poor, and not even Saeed’s more fluent sister, constrained perhaps by her concern with her reputation. From the perspective of Tom, the novel’s narrator, this muteness may make a certain amount of sense, but in a novel to which the Somalis are so central, this is, to this reader’s mind, a missed opportunity. Because the novel represents Somalis only as seen by mainstream others, they remain hazy, flighty, unpredictable, and transitory – even if also talented, courageous, proud, and well intentioned - others.
How successful this novel is if one does not measure it primarily by its depiction of the Somali community, as this review does, is a question about which readers appear to disagree. In her review of the book in the New York Times of 8 February 2013, Marcia Lerner found Tom’s teenage voice not fully credible and felt that the novel’s explicatory or pedagogical dimension weighed the story down. There is some truth to these insights, but the moments in which the novel (including the character of Tom) falls into Wikipedia-like explications are few and far between. For example, the conversation of the teenagers in Tom’s compulsory school focus group about multicultural interaction is witty and has just the right mix of teenage sarcasm and sincere emotional exchange. And the author’s descriptions of unfamiliar aspects of Somali or Muslim culture often remain light and open-ended with Tom or one of his friends using the American teenager’s typical conversation stopper of “whatever!”
However, the care and nuance with which the Somali characters are drawn is withheld from sexy but unintellectual Cherisse; when Tom unceremoniously and without any sensitivity or compassion dumps her for the college girl he has just met, the author lets him get away with it without a word.
This reviewer found the novel’s ending its most disappointing aspect. The Somali characters and the wider themes of teenage life and love simply fade out of focus and appear no longer urgent even to the central character of Tom Bouchard. At the end of the novel, a slightly less flaky and more mature (but still very passive) Tom expresses lofty sentiments about the now absent Saeed as an inspirational role model. But Saeed has simply moved to another U.S. city, not to the other end of the world! Tom’s attitude illustrates how, by the end of the novel, the little that was solid about Somali Saeed appears to have melted into air.
In spite of this critical note, however, this reviewer found this novel a thoroughly worthwhile and enjoyable read. Highly recommended.
Published in Africa Access Review (January 7, 2012)
Copyright 2014 Africa Access
Reviewed by: Lidwien Kapteijns, Wellesley College