Review: The Newcomers

At South High School in Denver, Colo., Eddie Williams teaches an English Language Acquisition class for newcomers to the U.S. Many of his teenage students have survived war, displacement and other traumas before they immigrated; others are unaccompanied minors or undocumented. All of them face the challenge of not only learning English, but adjusting to life in a new culture. Journalist Helen Thorpe spent a year in Williams's class, observing and befriending the students and learning their stories. She shares their experiences and her own in her insightful, keen-eyed third book, The Newcomers.

Thorpe (Soldier Girls) delves into the complex politics of the students' home countries: Burma, Vietnam, Iraq, Mexico, the Democratic Republic of Congo. She slowly gains the students' trust and comes to know some of their families, learning from their parents about life in refugee camps, the villages and relatives they left behind, and the constant challenges of building a life in a country where the job and language skills they possess are nearly useless. Thorpe sets the students' narratives against the backdrop of the global refugee crisis, the 2016 American presidential election and the fraught atmosphere surrounding issues of immigration. But The Newcomers is far from dour. It brims with life and humor, through the personalities of the students themselves: exuberant Lisbeth, witty Saúl, shy Abigail and their classmates. Thorpe grows particularly close to Jakleen and Mariam, sisters from Iraq who came to the U.S. via Turkey, with their younger sister and mother.

Throughout the school year, Thorpe traces the students' progress with compassion, touching on many facets of newcomer life: government benefits, assimilation into school and community activities, difficulties with jobs and transportation, the aching loneliness of the foreigner. She is deeply moved by her growing friendships with the students, as are Williams and his colleagues at South. "The students and their families saved each of us from becoming jaded or calloused or closed-hearted," Thorpe writes. "They opened us up emotionally to the joy of our interconnectedness with the rest of the world."

Meticulously researched, thoughtful and timely, The Newcomers provides a vital and joyous window into the lives of teenagers searching for a new home in the U.S., and asks important questions about Americans' willingness to welcome the stranger. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Shelf Talker: Helen Thorpe tells the stories of refugee teenagers in a "newcomer" class at a Denver high school.

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