This is the fifth in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting Nowhere Boy, thanks to both Sue Gail Spring at Norwood School in Bethesda, Md., and Carole Oglesby at Mallets Bay School in Colchester, Vt.
There are novels you don’t want to end, and ones you know you’ll be thinking about a long time after they do. Katherine Marsh’s Nowhere Boy is both.
This very involving story centers on two boys, about the same age, who find themselves in Brussels, a city that’s not their own and that neither one chose. Max’s American family is here for his dad’s posting with NATO, and his parents hope that by plunking Max in a local school he’ll somehow learn French and find motivation. Ahmed, a young Syrian, lost most of his family to a government bombing in Aleppo, then his dad disappeared in the Mediterranean trying to tow a sinking rubber boat full of refugees to uncertain landfall in Greece.
Ahmed winds up in Brussels, broke and alone with only a fake Syrian passport. When he takes desperate refuge, one night in a dank room deep in the basement of Max’s family’s townhouse, the two boys are on track to meet. When they do, Max’s life begins to find a sense of purpose, but one he has to hide from almost everyone.
Nowhere Boy is a rare achievement, a novel with moral intent that’s also a strong and honest story. The narrative pulls us in deeper as its characters struggle and evolve and everyone, on all sides, is swamped by the confused tension the flood of Muslim refugees has brought to Europe. Amid gruesome terror eruptions, there are no simple answers. But the story finds one simple truth: the vast majority of refugees are just people and families, not furthering violence but seeking safety from it.
Strong female supporting actors include Farah, Max’s sympathetic Moroccan classmate; Claire, his self-involved older sister whom life hasn’t yet really challenged; and Madame Pauline, his after-school tutor who tightly views Muslims as refusing to fit in and endangering Europe’s hard-won post-World War II peace. That war haunts the story, too, as a true tale of one neighborhood man’s sacrifice for one Belgian Jewish boy helps Max understand the choices he’s now making, and why.
This is a fine, fine novel. Its moral purpose peeks through sometimes a little too plainly — but the strength of the character-weaving narrative, with its gripping action and meaningful suspense, makes its lessons an outcome of the experience, not an author’s overlay. Max and Ahmed, and their friends and pursuers, will all be with me for a while. I’m grateful for that.