The premise of Allan Stratton’s new YA novel is an intriguing one. Suppose you are a teenage Muslim boy growing up in middle-class America, and just when you begin to suspect that your Iranian-born father is hiding something deep and dark from your family, the FBI arrests and accuses him of being part of a dangerous terrorist plot.Sami Sabiri is enrolled at an elite private school of his parents’ choosing, and he’s far from happy there. His two best friends, Marty and Andy, attend the local public high school, so Sami feels isolated and very much alone. He’s the victim of bullying from a fellow student he refers to as “Eddie Duh Turd.” (Eddie has earned the right to such a nickname.) Sami has tried hard to fit in and sometimes wishes he was like everyone else. But he loves his family, and family loyalty and religion are very much a daily part of his life.
There are secrets in Sami’s family, however. His father is a refugee from Iran, and there is emotional and political baggage aplenty there. His father also works at a laboratory where biological toxins are stored, and often heads off to distant conferences and professional meetings for days at a time. Sami is not so sure that his father is telling the truth about these trips, and suspects he has a girlfriend on the side, a concern that causes him to snoop into his father’s cellphone calls.
When Sami is disappointed by his father’s last-minute cancellation of what was supposed to have been a father-son trip to Toronto, he and his two buddies take a speed boat to an island on the Ontario side of the U.S. border, where they find themselves in trouble for trespassing. This foreshadows a subsequent act of illegal cross-border hopping that Sami commits in an effort to find out the truth about his father’s visits to Toronto. (Let me just say that if it’s as easy to travel by water in a pleasure craft from New York State to Ontario as Stratton suggests – and I believe it may be – then the whole government industry ostensibly dedicated to keeping real terrorists from crossing this international border is a sham.
Borderline tackles the sensitive issues arising from this scenario in a manner that is intelligent and even – dare I say it – entertaining. It’s often hard for an author to balance the two, but Stratton has done an admirable job. (This isn’t surprising, considering that Stratton is the author of the multi-award-winning Chanda’s Secret and Chanda’s War, both of which achieved the same delicate balance in dealing with the issue of AIDS in Africa.) Stratton brings aspects of Sami’s faith into the novel in an organic way so that the reader does not feel like he is being educated about religion.
The novel examines with genuine care what it must feel like to be a teenage boy living in an environment in which people of Middle Eastern heritage are suspect by virtue of their looks and religion. Though I would have personally been interested in Stratton’s take on how these issues play out on our side of the border – as Canadians, we sometimes feel we are more liberal, enlightened, and less prejudiced than Americans, but that may be a myth – he has clearly done his research into how things work in the U.S., and he reveals how citizens who are accused of terrorism can quickly find themselves stripped of their legal rights.
One of the most interesting characters in the book is Mr. Bernstein, a gay history teacher at Sami’s private school who has experienced his own share of harassment. At one point, he advises Sami, “We can’t choose what life throws at us. But we can choose what we do about it. Our choices are who we are.” Damn right. A bit old school, but it’s great to see a credible fictional teacher giving such pearls of wisdom to a young man at a difficult and critical time in his life. Later, in trying to explain how good people are sometimes accused of terrible things, he explains to Sami, “Thoughts aren’t crimes. If they were, everyone on Earth would be in jail.”
Bernstein eventually saves Sami from physical abuse at the hands of Eddie and his thugs in the school washroom. As he consoles Sami on the washroom floor, a picture is taken with a cellphone and posted on the Internet, leading to Bernstein’s forced retirement. This subplot underscores the novel’s themes of appearance versus reality, and how easily we can be manipulated by images, words, and events.
Family loyalty, justice, and the shifting nature of truth are all examined in Borderline, and Stratton leads us through Sami’s tribulations with a graceful hand that makes this thought-provoking novel a pleasure to read.