You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
WaterBrook Press; Reprint edition (March 17, 2009)
Caroline B. Cooney is the author of A Friend at Midnight; The Face on the Milk Carton (an IRA-CBC Children’s Choice book); its companions, Whatever Happened to Janie and The Voice on the Radio(each of them an ALA Best Book for Young Adults); and many other award-winning novels. Caroline divides her time between Madison, Connecticut, and New York City.
List Price: $8.95
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: WaterBrook Press; Reprint edition (March 17, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
“Drew and Kara Finch have generously volunteered to take the family in,” said Dr. Nickerson. The room applauded. Jared stared at his parents in horror. The refugees were coming here? His little sister, a mindlessly happy puppy of a kid, cried out in delight. If Mopsy had ever had an intelligent thought in her life, she kept it to herself.
“Yay!” cried Mopsy. “It’ll be like sleepovers every night.”
“You see, Jared, we have a lovely guest suite,” said his mother, as if he didn’t live here and wouldn’t know, “where the parents can stay and have their own bathroom.”
This implied that there were kids who would not be staying in the guest suite. So they would be staying where, exactly?
“Your room and Mopsy’s are so spacious, Jared darling,” his mother went on. “And you each have two beds, for when your friends spend the night. And your own bathrooms! It’s just perfect, isn’t it?”
Jared’s mother and father had volunteered his bedroom for a bunch of African refugees? And not even asked him? “I’m supposed to share my bedroom with some stranger?” he demanded. Jared did not share well. It had been a problem since nursery school. Mrs. Lane, a woman Jared especially loathed, because he was fearful that Mopsy would grow up to be just like her—stout and still giggling—said excitedly,
“That’s why your family’s offer is so magnificent, Jared.” Jared figured her last name was actually Lame.
“You will guide and direct young people who would otherwise be confused and frightened by the new world in which they find themselves,” cried Mrs. Lame. She definitely had somebody else in mind. Jared did not plan to guide and direct anybody. Jared’s bedroom was his fortress. It had his music, his video games, his television and his computer. It was where he made his phone calls. As for Africa, Jared knew nothing about the entire continent except what he’d seen on nature shows, where wild animals were always migrating or else eating each other. But about Africans themselves, aside from the occasional Jeep driver, TV had nothing to say. And there was always more important stuff on the news than Africa, like weather or celebrities. Jared would be forced to hang out with some needy non-English-speaking person in clothes that didn’t fit? Escort that person into his own school? Act glad?
“I decline,” said Jared.
“The church signed a contract, Jared,” said Dr. Nickerson.
“We are responsible for this family.” “I didn’t sign anything,” said Jared. “I don’t have a responsibility.” The committee glared at Jared. Jared glared right back. They weren’t volunteering to share their bedrooms. No, they could force two handy kids to do it. “My sister and I are the only ones who actually have to do any sharing? You guys get to contribute your old furniture or worthless televisions that you didn’t want anyway for when these guys get their own place, but meanwhile Mopsy and I have to take them in?” He hoped to make the committee feel guilty. Everybody did look guilty but also really relieved, because of course they didn’t want to share a bedroom either.
“It’ll be so wonderful!” cried Mopsy, hugging herself. “Is there going to be a girl who can be my best friend?” It was getting worse. People would expect Jared to be best friends with this person who would invade his life.
“What went wrong with the rental?” asked Jared, thinking he would just kill whoever was getting the apartment, thus freeing it up again for these refugees.
“The owner’s eighty-year-old grandmother, who’s blind, is moving in with her caregiver.”
Oh, please. That was such a lie. How many eighty-year-old blind grandmothers suddenly had to move in with their caregiver? The owners were probably remodeling so they could sell the place for a million dollars instead.
“What are we supposed to do, Jared?” asked Dr. Nickerson in his most religious voice. “Abandon four people on the sidewalk?” They’d been abandoned anyway; that was what it meant to be a refugee. Jared opened his mouth to say so, but a movement from his father caught his eye. Dad was sagging in his chair, deaf and blind to the meeting. Having a family of refugees in the house probably wasn’t his choice either; Mom had saddled him with it. He wasn’t on this committee, and the last committee on which Dad had served had gone bad. His co-chairman had turned out to be a felon and a bum. But Jared had more important things to worry about right now. “How long are these guys supposed to live here?” he demanded.
“We don’t know,” admitted the minister. “This is an expensive town. We’re going to have trouble finding a low-cost rent for people earning minimum wage. We probably found the only place there is, and now it’s gone. We’ll have to look in the cities nearby—New London, New Haven. And probably in bad neighborhoods. It’s a problem we didn’t anticipate.”
Jared never prayed, because the idea of a loving God seemed out of sync with the facts of the world. Nevertheless, Jared prayed now. Please, God, don’t let there be a boy in this family. Make Mopsy do all the sharing. I can squeeze my extra twin bed into her room. I’ll even move it cheerfully. “What do we know about these guys?” he said.
“Very little.” Dr. Nickerson waved a single sheet of paper. He handed it to the person sitting farthest away from Jared, ensuring that Jared would be the last to know the grim truth. “That’s why we’ve gathered here tonight. Let me introduce our representative from the Refugee Aid Society, Kirk Crick.”
What kind of name was that? It sounded like a doll Mopsy would collect. And what was up with Kirk Crick that he couldn’t even photocopy enough pages for everybody to have one? It didn’t exactly give Jared faith in the guy’s organizational skills.
“He’s going to discuss the work ahead of us and some of the difficulties and joys we can expect,” said the minister. Like there could be joy with four total strangers in your house for an unknown period of time. The guy didn’t smile, which Jared appreciated, since it was easy to overdose on good cheer. Just look at Mopsy.
“I find that my name annoys people,” said Kirk Crick, “but it’s memorable. You can call me either one—or neither.”
This worked for Jared, who hoped to have nothing to do with the man or his refugees. Kirk Crick launched into a long, tedious description. It seemed that the African family to be foisted off on Jared might never have been in a grocery store, never used an indoor stove or a computer, maybe never driven a car or heard of credit cards, never taken a hot shower or encountered cold weather, never seen a shopping mall. In their entire country, there was not a single ATM. There had not been reliable electricity for a decade.
“They probably can’t drive,” said Kirk Crick, “a problem here in suburbia. They’ll be used to buses, and maybe taxis, but mostly if they have to go somewhere, they walk. Or run. Remember, they fled a civil war. They’ve lived in a refugee camp in Nigeria for several years, with little shelter of any kind—six thousand people in an outdoor pen.” This was an obvious exaggeration intended to make Jared feel sorry for people who were going to trespass on his life. “The good news is that they speak English, the official language in Liberia, where native tribal languages are used mostly at home. Their accent will be difficult to understand, but they won’t have difficulty understanding you. “According to this, the parents finished eighth grade. The kids probably attended school at the refugee camp, although those schools usually have no paper, pencils or books. Sometimes no teachers either. The children are fifteen and sixteen, but we can’t tell from their names whether they’re boys or girls. We’ll just run with it when we meet them at the airport. We weren’t expecting this family to arrive for another month, so it’s just great that you people are so flexible.” Nobody here has to be flexible but me, thought Jared. Mrs. Lame suddenly decided that everybody needed coffee. Right in the middle of the guy’s talk, off she went into the kitchen, which meant Jared’s mom had to go with her, and then the two of them circulated, offering regular and decaf, whole milk and skim and sugar or sweetener in yellow, pink or blue packets. Brand preference was one of the million things this African family was going to have to learn. As long as Jared didn’t have to do the teaching—whatever. Kirk Crick droned on. Basically nobody except Jared even knew he was up there; certainly not Jared’s parents. They were such bad listeners that Jared didn’t see how they’d ever gotten through college. They multitasked to the max. When they watched television, they were also cooking, leafing through the newspaper, talking on the phone and balancing their checkbooks. Here was information that would change their lives and they were thinking about ten other things instead. The Finches’ beautiful yellow and cream family room was a huge space, with three soft, welcoming sofas and four large armchairs. As the sun went down beyond the wall of glass, people nestled into cushions and got sleepy. “Refugees,” said Kirk Crick, “have nothing, and that also means no paperwork. People racing out of villages only inches ahead of madmen with machetes or AK-47s don’t pause to collect birth certificates or vaccination papers.” Mom was arranging desserts, something church ladies did well. Jared wondered what Mrs. Wall had brought, because she was a great cook.
Then he remembered. Mrs. Wall wasn’t here. It was her husband, Brady, who had co-chaired the fund-raising committee with Dad. Over two years they had raised seven hundred fifty thousand dollars for the new church building. They’d had fairs, auctions, pledge campaigns, concerts and dinners. And three days earlier, the church had found out that Brady Wall had been siphoning off that money and gambling it away at Foxwoods. It wasn’t just stolen. It was gone. Jared’s mom was friends with Emmy, Brady Wall’s wife. Jared had a bad feeling that one day soon Emmy would be in the kitchen sobbing all over Mom. It was going to be a very crowded kitchen, since it would also be full of Africans sobbing all over Mom. Jared hoped she was up to it, because he had just decided to sign up for every school-sponsored ski trip in order to be out of town Fridays through Sundays. The less sharing, the better. “One problem getting refugees to America is just finding seats on a plane,” said Kirk Crick. “There aren’t many flights. Probably something opened up very suddenly, or four other people couldn’t go after all, so your four moved to the head of the line. Your family is flying to London, where they’ll change planes for Kennedy Airport. Now, you’ll need subcommittees. Who will be handling medical needs and doctors?”
“Wait,” said Jared. “What medical needs? Are these people planning to show up complete with typhoid and malaria?”
“No. They get checked in Africa for that stuff. But the kids can’t start school until they’ve been inoculated for tetanus and all. Just like any other kid starting school. They’ll be spending a bunch of time at the doctor’s. Your family’s background has been screened as well. African civil war consists of people butchering each other. Our task force makes sure you’re not getting some mass murderer responsible for destroying whole villages, or a dealer in blood diamonds, or some vicious boy soldier.”
“I’ve heard about boy soldiers,” said Mr. Lane. (Jared was always surprised that anybody had married Mrs. Lane and even more surprised that such a person ever had a chance to talk.) “Ten-year-olds who chop people’s arms off and walk away,” explained Mr. Lane. No kid would do that. It was the kind of hype spewed on satellite radio—anything to make the world sound even more violent than it was. The whole idea of screening people struck Jared as useless. Being screened would be like taking an essay test where you wrote whatever your teacher wanted to hear. We’re kind and gentle, the refugees would say. We didn’t hurt anybody. Goodness, no. We were the victims.
“What are blood diamonds?” asked Mopsy.
“Diamonds that are mined in West Africa and used to pay for war,” said Kirk Crick. He seemed ready to expound on this, but
Jared didn’t care about mines. He cared about the strangers soon to be under his roof.
“If the family doesn’t have any papers to start with, how does the Refugee Aid Society even know for sure who they are?” Jared asked.
“We’re very, very, very careful,” said Kirk Crick.
Jared was suspicious. Right in their own church they had been careful and they’d still ended up with a major-league thief on the fund-raising committee. “Is there really such a thing as a boy soldier?”
“Yes. Often when a village is attacked, the boys are out in the fields watching the cattle. So parents get caught, killed or maimed, girls get raped and killed, villages get burned to the ground, but young boys get rounded up. They’re forced to use machine guns and machetes on their own neighbors.”
Nice. Jared decided to e-mail everyone he’d ever met and find someone to live with until this was over. “A boy who spends the day out in some field with cows won’t exactly fit in with suburban America in the twenty-first century,” he pointed out.
“You have your work cut out for you,” agreed Kirk Crick.
“Now, your African family may not wish to discuss their past. They want to look ahead, not back. You’re getting an intact family, which is unusual. Four people who struggled and suffered and now hope to put terror behind them. Your church signed on to cover housing and food for three months and to find jobs for the parents. After three months, the family is on its own. If they can’t function—and that’s rare, because refugees are fighters—the Society takes over.”
Three months? thought Jared. Three months? Nobody but Jared seemed to think this was insane.
“You are doing a good deed,” said Crick.
The committee loved hearing how good and generous they were. They sat tall. They took lemon bars as well as double-chocolate brownies. Jared’s dad began talking softly to one of the husbands, undoubtedly about Brady Wall, because that was now Dad’s only topic of conversation. Mom was asking Mrs. Lame for her toasted almond cake recipe. The rest of the crowd was finding car keys. Jared was the only person listening to Kirk Crick.
“In a civil war,” Crick said, “there are no good guys. They’re all guilty of something. You are probably not saving the innocent, because in a civil war, nobody is innocent.”
Jared had never seen a refugee; the Society had seen thousands. Maybe tens of thousands. And that was the summary? There are no good guys? This made the refugee scene quite exciting. Jared’s roommate would have a history of fighting and killing. On the other hand . . . how much fighting and killing did Jared really want in his own bedroom? The piece of paper describing this family finally circulated to Jared. On it were four black-and-white photographs that had probably been grainy and unfocused to start with. After much copying or downloading, they were so blurred that the four faces hardly had features. The photos were from the shoulders up, and everybody’s hair was pulled tightly back, or else cut close, and as far as Jared could tell, these guys could be anybody. These could even be four photographs of the same person. There were dates below each photo, possibly dates of birth, but they were smudged and only partially legible. After close scrutiny, he decided that the two on top looked older. Probably the parents. The names typed under those photos (Typed! Not even done on a computer!) were Celestine Amabo and Andre Amabo. It seemed odd that they had French-sounding names. The photo in the lower left was labeled “Mattu” and the one on the lower right, “Alake.” No clues how to pronounce those names or whether the people were male or female. We are taking people under our roof for months at a stretch, thought Jared Finch. We can’t read their dates of birth. We can’t tell what gender they are. We can’t recognize them from their photographs. We know in advance that they are not good guys.
This opened my eyes a bit to how it is in Africa. There is a lot of atrocities that go on all over the world that we have no idea how it is. I really enjoyed it.
My sister posted a better review over here.