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Nowhere Boy

Review

Nowhere Boy

Max Howard’s life as he knows it is over. His parents have taken him and his sister out of their comfortable lives in Washington D.C. and relocated to Brussels, Belgium. As if leaving his friends weren’t enough, Max has to attend a school where he doesn't speak the language and, worse still, he’s repeating the seventh grade. Max knows his parents don’t think much of his abilities; he’s never been as smart as his sister Claire, who gets to attend a private English-speaking school in Brussels. With his poor grades, hot temper and impulsivity, Max feels even less supported by his parents. And no one can pronounce his name --- in Brussels, he’s “Mex.”

Halfway across the world in Syria, 14-year-old Ahmed is living a nightmare Max can’t even imagine. Their country torn apart by war and most of their family killed by an airstrike, Ahmed and his father begin a desperate journey west, hoping to start a new life in Europe. But Ahmed’s father is lost during a dangerous sea crossing, and Ahmed must fend for himself in a strange land that does not welcome him. Ahmed lands in Brussels, which is already filled with Middle Eastern refugees. The Belgians have cared for them, but as more and more people pour into the country, Belgian citizens begin to resent their presence and fear for the future. Ahmed strikes out on his own and ends up sheltering in the basement of a house, feeling more alone in the world than ever before.

"NOWHERE BOY takes a complex, global event and humanizes it, bringing the plight of refugees into sharp focus and appealing to the reader’s emotions. In doing so, NOWHERE BOY achieves the best of what novels can do: induce empathy, prompt action, and change minds."

When Max discovers Ahmed living in his basement, at first he’s terrified the boy could be a terrorist; all of Belgium seems to be on high alert for Middle Eastern refugees recruited by terrorist groups. But soon the boys bond over a love of soccer and comic books, and a friendship is born. Max does everything he can to keep Ahmed’s presence a secret, but the outside world is closing in, and Ahmed can’t hide forever. Max is horrified by the way Belgians talk about people like Ahmed --- they seem to think all refugees are alike, all terrorists bent on attacking innocent people. As Max learns more of Ahmed’s story, he becomes even more determined to help Ahmed survive.

NOWHERE BOY takes a complex, global event and humanizes it, bringing the plight of refugees into sharp focus and appealing to the reader’s emotions. In doing so, NOWHERE BOY achieves the best of what novels can do: induce empathy, prompt action, and change minds. Author Katherine Marsh crafts a soulful and engaging story, but her writing is at its best when she uses a close third-person point of view to narrate Ahmed’s inner thoughts. His anguish sneaks up at unexpected moments and takes your breath away. Marsh beautifully captures the psychological as well as the logistical challenges facing a refugee. Ahmed has lost his entire family and is in a strange country, but he has to eat. He’s happy to find shelter. And he finds moments of happiness in caring for the orchids in Max’s basement. But his grief hovers just behind his day-to-day actions and at times overwhelms him, as well as the reader. Max is also a well-developed character, but Marsh truly shines in Ahmed’s internal dialogue.

Marsh draws a clear and deliberate comparison between the current situation in Brussels and the occupation of Belgium by the Germans during World War II. Max hears several times the story of the man after whom his street is named, Albert Jonnart*. Jonnart hid a Jewish boy during the war and was reported to the Nazis. He died in a concentration camp, but the boy survived thanks to his selfless courage. Max can’t understand how this is any different from Ahmed’s situation. His Belgian nanny reveres Jonnart but holds deep prejudice against the modern refugees. As she puts it, “This is why the terrorists just waltz in here. Too many Europeans have this naive attitude: They’re just like us. But they’re not!” (p. 198) Max recognizes the hypocrisy of this view and struggles to understand. Even his own family seems wary of the refugees. Marsh brilliantly captures the purity with which Max, as a young person, can see the world, untainted by prejudice and fear. Eventually, Max comes to a realization: you can’t always save the people you love, and you can’t always protect them. But you can try.

NOWHERE BOY affected me deeply. I knew about the refugee crisis in Europe but the story had never been fleshed out for me, never broken my heart. Ahmed’s pain is unbearable, and the sheer number of stories like Ahmed’s is shameful. As Max puts it, you have to have “the courage to listen,” to put aside prejudice and see another human being as just that: human. At its heart, the novel is a call to action, a plea for courage and understanding. If your experience of NOWHERE BOY is anything like mine, you’ll want to answer that call.

Reviewed by Rebecca Hawkins on December 12, 2018

Nowhere Boy
by Katherine Marsh