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Outcasts United — the review

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In my Twitter-sized review of Warren St. John’s “Outcasts United,” I wrote as a top-of-my-head response after reading: “Makes you love America without feeling all Hannity.”

I don’t mean to get political, though it’s hard to read a book about a group of immigrants without thinking of Lou Dobbs yelling from the nearest television.

“Outcasts United,” about a group of refugee children dumped into a troubled suburb of Atlanta who are shaped into a soccer team by a Jordanian woman dumped by her father for staying in America, is a book about immigrants that the staunchest conservatives and the bleedingest-hearted of liberals could love.

The conservatives would love how the coach is tough on her charges and how the immigrants who are succeeding are lifting themselves up by their thin, thin bootstraps without demanding a handout. The liberals would love the inspirational tale of children of many nations coming together for a common purpose, and fighting oppression and prejudice all the way.

The book might be an easier sell if it took a political side. Instead, St. John, a New York Times reporter, does something more radical: he tells the story without going for the Big Lesson. You learn how immigrants need America, and better yet how American needs immigrants, as the story of the Fugees soccer team of Clarkston, Ga., develops.

The story might be about soccer, and it might be about people who come from you’re-from-where lands as Burundi, but it’s the prototypical American story: immigrants arrive to seek American dream; immigrants learn getting American dream isn’t so easy; immigrants strive to reach that dream; Americans in place resent immigrants “changing” things; immigrant parents and Americanizing children fight over pursuit of that dream; immigrants suffer oppression and violence; immigrants’ children fall prey to American temptations; Americans discover their use for immigrants; and America is renewed, and the American dream begins to be fulfilled, as immigrants blend into the melting pot. It’s also about how modern immigration works — not everyone arriving in the biggest cities, but odd ethnicities in out-of-the-way places, like Somalis concentrating in Lewiston, Maine, Burmese in Fort Wayne, Ind., Marshall Islanders in Springdale, Ark., and, as Dobbs will tell you, Latinos in small towns all over the United States.

Of course, it’s an enjoyable story on its own, a tale that breathes new life into all those cliches about the lessons sports can teach, and turns on its head cliches about small towns and the people in them. The beauty of “Outcasts United” is St. John’s thorough reporting and straight-ahead writing allowing the story to unfold in directions you might have never expected. You can see some of that here in an early version of the story, published in the New York Times.

No surprise, movie rights to “Outcasts United” have already been sold. However, I would recommend you read the book and not wait for the movie. I fear that a movie will strip all the subtlety out of the book, changing characters so you have more goody-goody good guys and more one-dimensional villains (and teary-eyed dramatic acceptance of immigrants). If you want be inspired not just by a team but by the country that messily allows it to thrive, pick up the book.

Written by rkcookjr

May 10, 2009 at 10:41 am