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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Outcasts United

by Warren St. John
336 pages

*** About the Book ***
Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference
The full title of this book is Outcasts United: An American Town, A Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference.

Around the world people are being pushed out of their homes by war and famine. Millions of people live in refugee camps and rely on the thin hope that they will be given the chance to emigrate to a safer place. The southern American town of Clarkston, Georgia is meant to be one of those safer places; hundreds of refugees from over 50 countries have been resettled there over the past ten years. The social dynamics of this 1.1 square mile town have changed in drastic ways and the original residents do not always welcome those changes.

Despite being different races and nationalities and speaking many different languages, there is one thing the refugee children in Clarkston have in common: soccer. When Jordanian immigrant Luma Mufleh sees the boys playing in a vacant lot one day, she impulsively volunteers to make them into a team.

This book tells the story of an immigrant woman and an oddly matched group of refugee boys and the way that together they are making a new life for themselves.

To get a better idea of this book, check out this video of the author:

*** Why I Read It ***

I first heard about this book at 5 Minutes for Books last summer and I put it on my TBR list then. When it was chosen as the 2010 One Maryland One Book I knew I’d read it this year. A few months back Alyce @ At Home With Books volunteered to send me her review copy – yay! I finally read it this month because the author is speaking at the Baltimore Book Festival (on 9/26) and I hope to see him there.

*** My Thoughts ***

This is exactly the combination of history and “story” that I most enjoy – I loved it!

The author intertwines a variety of stories to form this book. He looks at the town of Clarkston itself and how it has developed and changed over the years. He examines the refugee aid organizations, exposing their weaknesses while showing the determination and heart of many employees. The stories of individual refugee families are recounted and they exemplify the plight of all the refugees. Townspeople who have adapted to the refugee population and those who have not both get their say. These stories, like threads, come together to form the complex pattern that is Clarkston today.

The story focuses on the soccer team created by Luma Mufleh. Her efforts to make the boys into a coherent team despite their tremendous differences meet with varying degrees of success, just as the town’s efforts to adapt to the refugee population do. Luma’s battle with the mayor for a home field for her team mirrors the refugees’ battle to create a new home in Clarkston.

St. John’s background as a journalist is apparent in his writing style; each chapter reads almost like a separate article. For the most part this is a successful format, but there were times when it felt a bit disjointed. I was reading an ARC* though, so there is a chance that additional edits may have smoothed things out.

One thing that would have made this book better is the addition of phonetic spellings of the African and Middle Eastern names, either in the text or in an appendix at the back of the book. I hate not knowing how a name is supposed to be pronounced. One example that comes to mind is the name Kanue. Is is pronounced like the word canoe? Or KAN-oo? Or kan-OO-eh? I have no idea, and this kind of thing is distracting to me. It didn’t really take away from my enjoyment of the book though; it's more of a pet peeve of mine.

I truly enjoyed this book and I didn’t want to stop reading it. I was so excited to get to the end and see that there was an epilogue! I couldn’t wait to find out what was currently happening in Clarkston, and with the boys on the team, and with their coach. I excitedly turned the page and .... nothing.  The epilogue hadn't been written when the ARC was printed! NOOOOooooooo!  So now I'm on the hunt for a final edition of the book so I can learn what happened to everyone in the end.

UPDATE (10/25/10): I finally had a chance to read the epilogue! Check out my brief thoughts here.

*** Your Thoughts ***

Were you aware that a town in Georgia has basically become "refugee central"?  What are your thoughts on this?  How do you think your town would adapt to a sudden influx of refugees from various places?

Does your town/city/state do a "one book" program?  What books have they chosen recently?

* For those unfamiliar with this term, ARC means Advanced Readers Copy. It is a version of the book sent to reviewers before final edits are made.


Helen's Book Blog said...

I read this book last year and thought the whole thing was so interesting! I agree that it's the right amount of sports, current events (amazing that the town has so many refugees!), human interest story, and how it all comes together.

Jennifer, Snapshot said...

This is great Heather! Thanks for letting me know it was up. I really enjoyed it, but haven't heard much about it. I'm glad it's getting some attention in MD.

As for the epilogue -- hmmmm. I got an ARC as well and there was a note at it to go to the website to find it, but I didn't see it there. Maybe look on the publisher's website? I don't remember where they told us to look, but I remember I found it. Of course you can always look for it at a bookstore.

Try to remember to link this up to I Read It! on the first Tuesday.

Alyce said...

I'm glad that you enjoyed this book! I hope you can track down the epilogue!

Our state had something similar last year to "One Book" called Oregon Reads. The book choice was Stubborn Twig by Lauren Kessler, a factual account of a Japanese-American family living in the Pacific Northwest before and during WWII. All of the libraries had many copies and promoted it. I missed the 2010 selection, and just discovered the 2011 selection. Your post was a good reminder.

bermudaonion said...

This is in my TBR pile and it sounds like I need to pull it out to read!! When we lived in a college town, there many nationalities, but they weren't refugees. Their kids did dominate the soccer teams in town, though. The area we live now does have a county read along - this year's book was Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven.

Dreamybee said...

This is on my TBR list already. I would have been disappointed about the missing epilogue too!

I love that Maryland has a state-wide reading program. I don't think reading is exactly a priority in Hawaii. I was part of a fledgling book club a few years ago, and even though we were meeting in public locations in the middle of Honolulu, we were never able to get more than six people to attend at any given time. Maybe we should have included soccer as a half-time activity!

Heather J. said...

Helen’s Book Blog – Yes, St. John really put together the right amount of each thing – it was a fascinating book!

Jennifer – Thanks for the tip about the epilogue – I’ll see if I can find it somewhere. And thank you also for putting this book on my radar! I’ll definitely link up to it for I Read It.

Alyce – I’m glad to know that other communities are doing “one book” type programs. Stubborn Twig sounds like a great pick – I find it interesting that they chose a YA book. Let me know if you participate in this year’s program!

Bermudaonion – I hope you do read it – I know we don’t always like the same kinds of book, but I think you’d enjoy this one. I just read the summary of Velva Jean – that one sounds like a lot of fun!

Dreambee – I don’t know how much of a success the One Maryland One Book program is. I do know that several libraries have discussion events planned over the next few weeks. I’d be interested to know how many people attend. But even just reading the book – whether you officially participate in the program or not – it a good thing IMO, and I hope that many people are doing it. (As an aside, my local library can’t get a book club going at all – it just doesn’t seem to work in my area.)

Kailana said...

This is the first that I have heard of this book and am not really intrigued! It sounds like something I might really enjoy, so I must see if I can get a copy. Thanks for the review!

irisonbooks said...

This sounds really interesting, although I'm not sure if it would be as good a read to a non-US citizen, or is it more general?

Heather J. said...

Kailana - I hope you can find a copy - it's a great read!

Irisonbooks - I think that many countries around the world are dealing with the influx of refugees and immigrants. The focus of this book is how the community does or does not adapt to the new people, and I think that is something communities everywhere struggle with. So yes, although it is set in the US I think it would be a worthwhile read for a non-US citizen.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I'm so happy to read your enthusiastic post about OUTCASTS UNITED; it has been sitting on my shelves (unread) far too long!

Our town did a 'one book' read this summer, but it was one I had already read (and wasn't crazy about; dare I admit it was THREE CUPS OF TEA). There were a lot of great activities and discussion around the book, though, interesting for all ages.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I'm so glad you liked this book! I have a copy I bought used from a local bookstore, but haven't read it yet. I was hoping that the combination of history, story, and journalistic writing would work well.

Lisa notes... said...

What a great review! You really made me want to read this book. No, I had no idea about the town in Georgia. Wow. Very inspirational.

Heather J. said...

Dawn - I really wasn't a fan of the Tea book either ...

Kim - I think this book would work really well for you - just make sure your copy has the epilogue! LOL

Lisa - Thanks for coming by to check out my review. Definitely look for a copy of the book - it is worth reading.

1sentencediary said...

What an interesting book! I'll be adding it to my "keep a lookout for this book" list.

A lot of towns in Israel have a similar kind of history, though typically a group of refugees from the same area are all settled in the same town. (I used to live in Israel.) So it would be very interesting to see the similarities and differences there.

Found you through 5-minutes-for-books. Great review!

Heather J. said...

1sentencediary - Thanks so much for coming by! You make a good point about Isreal - there probably ARE a great deal of similarities between towns there and the town in this story, but there are certainly differences as well.

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