Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh

A teenage Syrian refugee is the “Nowhere Boy” whose fate falls into the hands of an American 13-year-old.

Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh.  Roaring Brook, 2018, 353 pages.

Reading Level: Middle grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 10-15

Ahmed’s short life was already ravaged when a bomb killed his mother and siblings in Aleppo, Syria.  But in the water passage from Turkey to Greece, he lost his father as well.  Tagging along with another refugee family to Brussels, he decides to cut loose and try to get to France.  That plan goes awry on a cold and rainy night, when he’s robbed and threatened by an unscrupulous smuggler. Desperate, he finds temporary refuge in the basement of a nearby house.  The house happens to be occupied by an American family, the Howards, while Mr. Howard is serving a year-long diplomatic mission for NATO.  Brussels is the last place Max Howard, 13, wants to be, especially after his parents enroll him in a French-speaking school.  But when, after some weeks, he discovers their unsuspected visitor, a friendship develops—along with a sense of purpose, courage, and resolve.  Why are some people so unlucky?  Doesn’t Ahmed have the same right to home, school, and opportunity that Max does?  What would it take to give him that?

The boys’ unfolding friendship is well done, and while their escapades stretch credulity toward the end, readers will be so heavily invested in their success it won’t matter.  Set during the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, the story very much leans toward a pro-immigrant stance but presents other views as at least understandable.  Terrorist acts are not downplayed, nor the panicked response to them.  Throughout, Ahmed presents the image of the reasonable, devout Muslim who only wants a chance to rebuild his life after preserving it.  His is the only religious view.  Christianity makes no appearance in post-Christian Europe and Max has no particular beliefs: “I don’t really believe in God,” he tells Ahmed at one point.  “But sometimes I think someone needs to.”  He and his school allies have to lie and break the law to help Ahmed, but they clearly see helping as the greater good.  An overt comparison to the Holocaust seems to make their mission clear.  (It’s worth pointing out that while many religious promote generosity and good works, Christianity is the only one that exalts self-sacrifice to the degree that’s shown here.  See discussion questions below.)

Cautions: None

Overall rating: 4.25 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 4
  • Artistic value: 4.5

Discussion Questions:

  • Ahmed tells Max a lot about his religion.  What are the virtues of Islam as Ahmed sees it?
  • What would you tell Ahmed about Christianity?
  • Is there a way Max and his friends could help Ahmed without breaking the law? Does their purpose justify breaking the law?

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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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