Thorpe shares enlightening stories of refugee students in ‘Newcomers’

Jan 13, 2018
  • By Kirkus Reviews
“The Newcomers,” Helen Thorpe

Helen Thorpe’s “The Newcomers” is a collection of personal stories of child refugees as they integrate into American society.

Focusing on one classroom in South High School in Denver, Colo., Thorpe (“Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War,” 2014) dives deep into the lives of 22 students, all refugees, who were just some of the many who enrolled in South High School’s newcomer class, a basic English acquisition class taught by kindhearted Eddie Williams. The students came from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, running from civil war, extreme persecution, drought, famine and a variety of other atrocities. As in her previous books, Thorpe writes with great compassion, and she demonstrates a profound understanding of how difficult it must have been for these children to leave everything they’d ever known and move to a foreign country where the language, customs and culture were so vastly different. She shares Williams’ methodology, which allows these boys and girls to cast aside their fears and bond with one another and their teacher, all while gaining a basic understanding of the English language. Thorpe also includes information on the general refugee situation in the U.S., discussing the various needs that must be provided for these newcomers and their families, including adequate clothing, housing and money for apartment rentals, as well as job training and integration into the workforce. She is candid about the occasional difficulties using an interpreter to learn each student’s personal story and how some children refused to discuss aspects of their long journeys to the U.S., a decision she respected despite her innate curiosity. Interviewing these young adults enhanced Thorpe’s understanding of the world, and reading her story will entertain and enlighten readers, creating a wider, more sympathetic view of the world and its inhabitants — certainly something we need right now.

“The Newcomers” is full of humane and informative stories about refugees and their plights in America.

(Thorpe will speak and sign copies of her book starting at 7 p.m. Jan. 19 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)

Memory and mortality

“Eternal Life” is a fresh exploration of memory and the future from Dara Horn, the award-winning author of “A Guide for the Perplexed.”

The idea that life derives its meaning from death is hardly new, but Horn manages to turn this commonplace notion into a powerful — and occasionally playful — exploration of what it is to be mortal. When the story begins, Rachel is living in New York, surrounded by children and grandchildren who remind her of the many, many, many children and grandchildren she has known and lost. Rachel’s memories extend all the way back to first-century Jerusalem, where she sacrificed her own death to save the life of her little son. Her child’s father, Elazar, has done the same. Over the centuries, these two come together and part again and again. They also start new lives and new families and travel to new worlds. The history they experience is, quite particularly, Jewish history. Without the efforts of their son, Judaism might not have survived the destruction of the Second Temple. They lose children and partners to the Romans, to the Spanish Inquisition and to the Holocaust. This novel is more intimate than sweeping, though. Horn takes the reader into the past when Rachel is lost in memory like anyone might be lost in memory; it just happens that Rachel’s memory goes back rather far. And all these temporal excursions resonate with Rachel’s present — which is also the reader’s present. As for the actual mechanics of how Rachel and Elazar become immortal. … Some readers are likely to feel there’s not enough explanation, while others might feel that there’s not enough mystery. And there are moments when dialogue, character development and storytelling are subordinate to the novel’s conceit. These are difficulties any writer of speculative fiction will understand, of course, and this novel succeeds on so many levels that these are minor complaints.

Overall, “Eternal Life” is poignant and thoughtful.